Citing a “war on coal,” Kentucky’s Republican-led Senate on Thursday approved two bills the coal industry requested to roll back the state’s mine-safety laws.
Senate Bill 297 would eliminate state inspections of coal mines, leaving the task to federal inspectors. Senate Bill 224 would end mandatory state safety training for mine foremen, giving coal companies the option of offering their own training for foremen to save money.
However, the Senate bills are unlikely to survive the Democrat-led House, which this week passed a state budget with language mandating the continuation of state mine inspections. The United Mine Workers of America has lobbied the House against the Senate proposals.
“What’s the reason? What’s the reason you’d want fewer inspections?” asked House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. “I don’t think those bills will be very well received in this chamber. There is an issue of safety.”
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Thousands of mining jobs are disappearing as Kentucky’s coal industry declines, said Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, the sponsor of SB 297. Girdler said the industry needs relief from “burdensome regulations and gotcha games,” such as inspections of mines by both the state and federal governments.
I call it strangulation by regulation. People’s lives are being ruined. People are losing their homes. People are filing bankruptcy. There’s broken homes. People are looking for just the basic necessities of life, such as food.
State Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset
“I call it strangulation by regulation,” Girdler told his colleagues in a Senate floor speech Thursday. “People’s lives are being ruined. People are losing their homes. People are filing bankruptcy. There’s broken homes. People are looking for just the basic necessities of life, such as food.”
However, a couple of Democrats stood to oppose the bills. The General Assembly passed a tough set of mine-safety laws a decade ago in direct response to fatal mine accidents caused by poor supervision and faulty equipment, they said.
“I can’t vote in good conscience today to dismantle and take state inspectors out of our mines. And I wish we had more, and I hope someday we do,” said Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who is a former coal miner and coal company attorney. “I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policy maker, and I cannot support this measure.”
Later, the bills also were criticized by Lexington mine-safety attorney Tony Oppegard, who has worked for the state and federal mine-safety agencies.
Although the Republicans proclaim that their anti-mine-safety bills won't diminish mine safety, these bills would place miners at greater risk of death or serious injury. The bills are nothing more than a gift to greedy mine operators who want to operate outside of the law.
Tony Oppegard, mine-safety attorney
“Although the Republicans proclaim that their anti-mine-safety bills won’t diminish mine safety, these bills would place miners at greater risk of death or serious injury. The bills are nothing more than a gift to greedy mine operators who want to operate outside of the law,” Oppegard said.
The Senate voted 25 to 11 for SB 297, which would end the inspection duties of the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety and Licensing and turn them entirely over to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Currently, the state inspects underground mines for safety hazards at least six times a year and surface mines at least twice a year. The state has somewhat different responsibilities and greater enforcement powers than MSHA, which must check underground mines at least four times a year and surface mines twice a year.
Citing “a duplication of efforts,” Girdler said his bill would reassign the state’s 62 inspectors to different but more valuable duties as “mine safety analysts.” As safety analysts, they would stop issuing citations for violations. Instead, they would “watch and correct bad behavior in those normal daily duties. It’s called ‘behavior modification,’ which helps prevent mining accidents and makes mines much safer,” he said.
A floor amendment Girdler added to his bill Thursday would let the governor appoint mine safety analysts.
The other measure the Senate approved, SB 224, would let coal companies offer their own safety training for mine foremen based on federal workplace standards for mine examiners. The companies no longer would have to send foremen to six hours of annual training provided by the state Division of Mine Safety and Licensing. The training emphasizes mistakes made by foremen that led to disciplinary actions.
Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, the sponsor of SB 224, said it would give the coal industry flexibility it needs. Webb also opposed this bill, arguing that the General Assembly had good reasons for insisting on state training for mine foremen a decade ago.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be a mine foreman. It’s a lot of responsibility,” Webb said. “But we’ve got to have them well trained. My comfort level is still, from a consistency standpoint, a health and safety standpoint, for my brothers and sisters that are still working, the few of us that are left, is that the state have purview on this.”