Just as Kentucky's legislature is gutting the state's mine safety program, coal operators from Eastern Kentucky are urging Congress to hamstring federal enforcement of mine safety laws because "we have a complete secondary layer of inspection at the state level" and "states do things the right way."
The quotations are from Charles J. Baird, chairman of the Pikeville-based Coal Operators and Associates in testimony March 25 before a subcommittee of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers' House Appropriations Committee. The panel recommends funding for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for enforcing mine-safety laws.
Baird's testimony is such a masterpiece of straight-faced disinformation that it should be enshrined in the George Orwell hall of shame.
But these efforts to roll back mine safety enforcement — the legislature reduced required state inspections of underground mines from six to four a year — should raise alarms at a time of transition and upheaval in the coal industry.
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Large, publicly-traded companies are responding to the steep decline in demand and production by selling their Eastern Kentucky coal operations to less capitalized locally owned companies. History tells us that these cash-strapped operations will try to drive up production and increase profits by taking shortcuts on safety.
With no union mines in Eastern Kentucky, miners have only federal and state inspectors to guard their safety.
In his testimony, Baird criticized the Obama administration and yearned for the days when regulators and the regulated worked together. Now, he said, MSHA has become such a punitive stickler for the rules that the once friendly relationship has been ruined by what he calls an adversarial culture.
Baird explained that he was providing no examples because "our operators fear retaliation" from the mine-safety agency. "The miners resent MSHA and fear for their jobs, not their safety," he said, stressing that his remarks should raise no doubts about "the commitment of our mines to the health, safety and well-being of our miners."
For those whose memories of the era of "cooperation and working together" have dimmed, here are a few statistics:
■ In 2006, at what many would say was the height of the chumminess between coal operators and federal regulators, there were fewer coal miners (122,975) than in 2012 (137,650), but the fatal injury rate was more than double.
■ Forty-seven miners died on the job in 2006, including five in an explosion at the Darby mine in Harlan County, compared with 20 in 2012 under the current repressive anti-miner regime.
■ In 2006, during the time Baird wants to bring back, the rate of injuries was 4.46 per 200,000 hours worked compared with 3.16 per 200,000 hours worked in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. MSHA inspectors spent many more hours in mines in 2012 than in 2006 and assessed almost three times as much in fines for safety violations.
MSHA has a history of abetting industry abuses that killed and disabled miners. The agency should wear Baird's criticism as a badge of honor.
Miners and their families can only hope that federal inspectors stay on the job after the damage this legislature is doing to the state enforcement praised by Baird and his Eastern Kentucky operators.
Gov. Steve Beshear recommended a funding cut in mine safety programs; the House adopted an even deeper cut. But it was the Republican Senate that took an ax to mine safety, cutting it by a third from what Beshear recommended.
The Office of Mine Safety and Licensing has plenty of duties besides inspections, including drug testing, miner training and certification, accident investigations and rescuing trapped miners. The Democrats in the House went along with the Republican cuts, nonetheless. The final budget cuts the agency by $4.3 million in the first year and reduces required state inspections of underground mines from six to four a year.
The justification — that the production decline necessitates fewer inspections — is flawed logic. Just because there are fewer mines does not mean each individual mine needs fewer inspections. If anything, more vigilance will be required as smaller operators take over.
We can only hope the legislature's flawed logic does not prove fatal for Kentucky miners.