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Mine safety cuts pushed by coal-owning lawmaker

Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, is pushing a bill in Frankfort to cut safety standards for the kind of small coal mines that he owns in Eastern Kentucky.

Hall is the sponsor of House Bill 119, which would reduce from two to one the number of mine emergency technicians, or METs, required at coal mines if the mines employ fewer than 18 people.

The bill was approved Feb. 12 by the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment, where Hall is vice chairman. It awaits a full House vote.

Mine safety advocates are criticizing Hall not only for proposing fewer METs at small coal mines, but because the change would benefit him personally.

Among his many business interests, Hall is president of Beech Creek Coal Co., which owns Eastern Kentucky coal reserves that are leased for mining to Kimara Coal Co. In an interview Monday, Hall said each of those three mines employs fewer than 18 people, so they would be allowed to halve their on-site METs if his bill becomes law.

About 47 percent of the state's 586 coal mines have fewer than 18 employees, according to the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

Typically, mine operators pay about $1 an hour extra to miners certified as METs, who are trained to provide medical care during on-site emergencies. So a small mine operator running several shifts might pocket $25 a day by eliminating an MET position, said Steve Earle, a United Mine Workers of America representative.

"Obviously, this is a huge conflict of interest for him," said Earle, who is lobbying against Hall's bill.

Wes Addington, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, said Hall should not have sponsored the bill.

"I don't think most people go to the voting booths so they can elect leaders who want to benefit themselves," Addington said.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission has ruled that state lawmakers are free to push measures that would benefit them personally as long as they would benefit other people in their class, too, such as other owners of small coal mines.

Several House Democrats are employed in the coal industry, either directly or indirectly, including Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg; Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook; and Natural Resources and Environment Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence.

Hall said his bill is necessary because small mines that employ just a handful of people can't always have two METs on site. If one MET calls in sick, an entire shift has to be canceled and valuable coal production is lost, Hall said.

"It's not a safety issue, it's an availability issue," Hall said. "For the small mom-and-pop operators, we can't get people trained fast enough. ... I'm talking about an auger crew of three of four guys, or a conventional crew of eight men, that cannot get two METs."

The state had certified 4,565 miners as METs as of Jan. 1, according to the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. The training is provided for free by the state.

Hall said he understands that mine safety advocates have concerns, so he plans to meet with them and state officials next Wednesday to discuss the availability of METs and how the current law is enforced.

He said state officials might be misinterpreting the existing law as requiring two METs underground at all times during underground production, when in fact, only one of the two METs has to be underground. That aggravates matters for mine operators, he said.

"I'm gonna have a little come-to-Jesus meeting with everyone and see where we stand," Hall said.

Johnny Greene, executive director of the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, did not respond to a request for comment about his agency's enforcement of the law.

The minimum requirement of two METs is part of a broad 2007 law the legislature passed that tightened mine safety standards, such as doubling the safety inspections at underground mines.

Safety advocates called for more on-site METs after miner Bud Morris bled to death in a 2005 Harlan County coal mine accident. The sole MET at that mine panicked and failed to render medical aid for Morris.

The ink hadn't dried on the 2007 mine safety law before mine operators began lobbying Frankfort to repeal parts of it, complaining that it was too burdensome, said Earle, the labor leader.

"We had eight coal miners killed in Kentucky last year. Now is not the time to be rolling back safety standards in a law that we just passed two years ago, and only then after a lot of negotiating and compromises," Earle said.