By Stephen A. Sanders
In February 2007, widows and children of coal miners convened at the Capitol in Frankfort to testify before a House committee about an important mine safety bill.
The landmark legislation, sponsored by Rep. Brent Yonts, followed one of the deadliest years in recent history for coal miners in Kentucky. Sixteen miners had been killed on the job in 2006, and five of those deaths were from an explosion at the Kentucky Darby No. 1 mine in Harlan.
Four months before Darby, 12 miners were killed in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Both disasters received extensive national coverage and legislators recognized that it was time for Kentucky to act on mine safety.
The Appalachian Citizens' Law Center worked with the United Mine Workers and others to pass legislation to improve mine safety. While parts of the bill were ultimately compromised, one important component survived: the number of mine inspections per year was doubled from three to six.
Now lawmakers are trying to do away with this requirement — without the usual process of holding public hearings and engaging in public discussion. Instead, the Senate quietly proposed a state budget that would significantly reduce funding for the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. And, in a last minute addition to the budget discussion, the budget conference committee agreed to reduce state inspections of coal mines to four per year.
Mary Middleton, whose husband, Roy, died in the 2006 Darby blast, told the Herald-Leader: "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."
Stella Morris lost her husband, Bud, to injuries in another Harlan County mine and she helped campaign for the mine safety bill back in 2007. As she told WYMT-TV last week, "If there's something going on in the mines and they're not being inspected on a regular basis, there can be fatalities there and we just don't want any more families to go through what we went through. ... Even though you only have a few mines operating, those mines need to be safe."
The cuts to OMSL's budget are drastic and will significantly curtail the agency's ability to ensure miners' safety. The biggest disasters of coal mining make the news — like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 men. But the day-to-day dangers of working in and around high-speed mining equipment, of roof falls and rib rolls, and of breathing excessive amounts of dust, are threats that debilitate and kill an untold number of miners. Such individual deaths and injuries occur out of the public eye and are often normalized as the everyday costs of mining. Because mining conditions change quickly, it is vital that OMSL perform frequent inspections for mine safety to be maintained.
The way in which the cut to the OMSL budget and the reduction in the number of inspections was moved through the legislature — with no recommendation from the agency in charge of mine safety, without a public hearing and with no public discussion of how many inspectors and inspections are needed — is not the way to properly legislate mine safety.
If the reduction in mining activity lessens OMSL responsibilities, there should be a study of what changes can be reasonably made to OMSL without a reduction in the enforcement of safety standards — not an arbitrary decision to cut funding and reduce the number of inspections.
Regardless of the outcome, the cavalier manner employed by legislators in addressing the safety of Kentucky's miners is an affront to the hard work and dedication of deceased miners and their families.