FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Senate's proposed state budget would reduce state inspections of underground coal mines by two-thirds and slash by one-third the funding of the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.
On Wednesday, the Kentucky Coal Association supported the Senate proposals as "necessary in a difficult budget year," while a woman widowed by a 2006 mine explosion that killed five miners in Harlan County said she was "sickened" to see the legislature abandon its previous reforms.
"They're just so dirty," said Mary Middleton, whose husband, Roy, died in the 2006 Darby mine blast. "They're looking out for coal operators, same as always. It's the men who go underground and do the work and risk their lives, but the politicians will always cut corners for the coal operators. The politicians don't have to go through what we have, with the loss of a husband and a father."
The Senate's 204-page executive branch budget, which was approved Monday and now is the subject of House-Senate negotiations, includes a sentence that would reduce from six to two the number of inspections the state must perform annually at each active mine.
In addition, the Senate would give the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing $9.7 million in fiscal year 2015, forcing the loss of half or more of its 145 full-time employees, the agency warned.
In January, Gov. Steve Beshear called for the agency to get $14.6 million in fiscal year 2015, reflecting the same 5 percent budget cut that many state agencies would see. The House budget proposed $12.4 million.
Dick Brown, spokesman for the state cabinet that oversees the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, said the Senate budget "really almost wipes us out." Among its many responsibilities, the agency educates miners; investigates accidents; and must have a mine-rescue team within an hour's drive of all active mines, which commits 72 employees to field assignments around the state, Brown said.
The General Assembly strengthened state law to require six annual inspections at each mine and agreed to fund more inspectors as part of a series of reforms following several mine disasters in the mid-2000s, including the Darby mine explosion.
There were two coal-related deaths in Kentucky in 2013, one at a Leslie County surface mine and the other at an underground mine in Harlan County. From 2002 through 2013, the federal government recorded 87 deaths in Kentucky related to coal mining.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said a sharp decline in Eastern Kentucky coal mining during the past few years makes the agency less necessary. (Stivers also told reporters Wednesday that state law currently requires four inspections a year at each mine, not six; but when he was challenged on it, Stivers said he wasn't sure what state law requires.)
Under the Senate bill, the agency would be smaller but would remain adequate to the task, Stivers said.
"I think they're just trying to protect their turf," Stivers said. "Over 7,000 (mining) jobs have disappeared, over 400 mines have been shut down, and they still want the full appropriation."
Brown acknowledged that the number of active coal mines licensed in Kentucky, underground and surface, fell from 626 in 2008 to 369 in 2013. Partly reflecting that decline, staffing at the mine-safety agency has fallen from 172 to 145 through attrition, Brown said. But just because there are fewer mines overall doesn't mean any of the remaining mines are supposed to be less safe, he said.
"If a mine is open and men are working there, whether it's got 25 miners, 15 or 10, it's still got to be safe, it's still got to be inspected," Brown said. "The more frequently we can inspect a mine, the better for the miners' safety."
Apart from underground mines, the state is supposed to complete one full and two partial inspections every quarter on active surface mines and one full inspection on inactive and abandoned surface mines, although state inspectors have not always fully met these schedules. Buttressing the state's inspectors, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is responsible for inspecting underground mines four times a year and surface mines twice a year.
Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety lawyer in Lexington, was among those who successfully lobbied the General Assembly for more frequent inspections nearly a decade ago. Too often, Oppegard said, politicians agree to tougher mine-safety laws only after mining disasters get headlines. Then they forget why reform was necessary or they hope the public will, and the reforms disappear, he said.
"If this bill passes, there will be more wholesale violations of the law and there will be more miner injuries and deaths," Oppegard said.
"We fought like hell to get six inspections a year in Kentucky," he said. "Let me tell you, the best days of a coal miner's life are the days when an inspector is down in the mine. It's the one time that all of the safety rules are followed to the letter. Ventilation curtains are hung, coal dust is controlled, things are done properly. Once the inspector leaves, the managers start scabbing again."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, did not rule out a final version of the state budget including the Senate's mine-safety proposal.
"I'm sure we'll have discussions on that," said Stumbo, whose 2014 personal-finance disclosure shows coal-royalty income. "There are fewer coal mines and less need for inspections, so I'm sure some adjustments can be absorbed."
Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters has protested the Senate's planned cuts to the mine-safety agency since the budget passed Monday. It's not clear if Beshear would veto that language out of a final budget, Peters said Wednesday, but "he has assured me that we need to do whatever we can to protect mine safety in this state."