Politics & Government

Bill to cut safety inspections at Kentucky’s underground coal mines advances

Safety inspectors would visit Kentucky’s underground mines less often under a bill moving through the state House of Representatives.

The state can reduce the number of times it inspects underground mines each year because the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration also sends its own safety officers into the same mines four times each year, said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington.

“What we do right now is a lot of duplication,” said Benvenuti, who represents an urban area with no coal mines.

The state requires four inspections of underground mines each year, down from six a year thanks to a provision included in last year’s budget bill. At least two of the four inspections must be full electrical inspections.

House Bill 384 would decrease the number of inspections to three, with only one full electrical inspection. It was approved Wednesday by the House Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee and sent to the full House for its consideration.

Opponents of the bill said scaling back inspections is dangerous for miners.

“I don’t want the blood of dead miners on my hands because I made a decision that reduced the safety in coal mines,” said State Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills.

The General Assembly raised the number of required mine inspections in 2006 after several mine disasters, including the Darby Mine Explosion that killed five miners in Harlan County.

There have been several efforts in recent years to reduce the number of state inspections. In 2014, Senate Republicans tried to tuck a provision into the budget that would cut inspections, only to remove it after pushback. A bill to eliminate all state mine inspections was approved by the Republican-led Senate last year but floundered in the House, which was led by Democrats at the time. Eventually, budget negotiators agreed to cut the number of inspections to four.

When the Senate bill to eliminate state inspections was heard in committee last year, the sponsor argued that the industry’s decline had resulted in too many inspectors for too few sites.

“The mine inspectors are basically trying to validate their existence,” former state Sen. Chris Girdler said at the time. “You’re seeing 12 to 15 inspectors a day on one particular job site.”

This year, Benvenuti argued that inspectors are spread too thin.

Allen Luttrell, commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources, said the Division of Mine Safety has 76 employees, including 56 inspectors, down from 172 employees in 2007.

As the number of coal mines and miners in Kentucky has steadily decreased over the past decade, so has the money spent on safety inspections. Luttrell said the budget has decreased by $7 million since 2007.

“We have less dollars,” Benvenuti said. “Why spend those dollars in redundancy when we can spend them in a targeted manner?”

Luttrell said the bill would enable mine safety inspectors to focus on their safety analysis program, which allows analysts to spend a shift with miners and make an assessment about the safety of the mine based on the shift.

“That program can’t evolve because it can’t be given the time and attention it needs,” Benvenuti said.

Rep. Jeffery Donohue, though, said all of the existing electrical and physical inspections are necessary.

“Why in the world would we take away another opportunity to inspect?” said Donohue, D-Louisville.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics