Politics & Government

Senate panel approves bills to roll back Kentucky’s mine-safety laws

Madonna Griffith clung to the flag she was presented at the burial of her husband Robert, 24, a Vietnam veteran who died in the Scotia Mine disaster in Letcher County 40 years ago.
Madonna Griffith clung to the flag she was presented at the burial of her husband Robert, 24, a Vietnam veteran who died in the Scotia Mine disaster in Letcher County 40 years ago.

On Wednesday, the 40th anniversary of the Scotia coal mine explosions in Letcher County that killed 26 people, a Senate committee passed two bills to roll back the state’s mine-safety laws.

Senate Bill 297 would end state safety 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.

The votes came 40 years to the hour after an explosion caused by the build-up of coal dust and methane rocked the Scotia mine near the Oven Fork community. Two days after the blast, a second explosion occurred. The death toll was 26 miners and mine inspectors; faulty equipment and inadequate ventilation were blamed.

The Kentucky Coal Association and Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration are backing the two Senate bills. They told the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on Wednesday that the beleaguered coal industry needs relief from overregulation to help it survive the collapse in demand for its product.

Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, the sponsor of SB 297, walked the committee through recent data on job losses and production declines in Kentucky’s coal industry. Girdler blamed government for the problems. There are relatively few mines left in Kentucky getting a disproportionate amount of regulatory oversight, he said.

“I’m for the free markets along with rational oversight deciding what is most efficient and what is best, not the government picking winners and losers,” Girdler said. “That is exactly what we have seen over the past eight years with overburdensome regulations and gotcha games, and a presidential administration that makes no bones about their desire to put the coal industry out of business.”

No one is trying to put profits above miners’ safety, Girdler told the committee.

“I want to be crystal clear on this: Safety of our miners is paramount. Anyone who would suggest otherwise is simply fear-mongering and spreading hateful rhetoric,” he said.

The committee voted 6-1 to approve 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. The bill proceeds to the full Senate.

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.

“This would help make the government leaner and more efficient while keeping our miners safe,” Girdler said. “The goal is to bring in line the functions of the Division of Mine Safety and Licensing and make them more of a complement to MSHA.”

Charles Snavely, secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, told the senators that he supported Girdler’s bill.

The state Division of Mine Safety and Licensing used to spend more time on mine safety analysis until budget cuts eliminated 40 percent of the agency’s jobs, said Snavely, who until recently was an executive with Arch Coal. By ending the state’s mandatory inspections, the agency can reassign its remaining staff to safety analysis, he said.

Only one lawmaker, Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, voted against Girdler’s bill. Jones said the language would leave state mine safety analysts without legal authority to issue citations, shut down a mine or file a report with their superiors if they witnessed dangerous problems while in a mine. State mine inspectors tend to be more knowledgeable and thorough than their federal counterparts, Jones said.

Mine safety analysts should not have to remain passive, simply offering recommendations, in the face of serious violations, Jones said.

“There would be no enforcement mechanism,” Jones said. “I think this bill may go a little bit too far on the safety issue.”

In response, Snavely told the committee he couldn’t vouch for how the bill was written. However, his cabinet thinks that a safety analyst who witnesses “an egregious violation of the law or something that is dangerous” legally could take action to stop it, he said.

“If it’s not clear (in the bill), then it should be clarified. That’s our intent at the cabinet,” Snavely said.

Next, the Senate committee voted 7-1 to approve SB 224 and send that bill to the full Senate.

SB 224, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, would allow coal companies to 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.

Smith told the committee that mandatory off-site state safety training needlessly costs coal companies thousands of dollars a year.

“The reasoning behind this is that, if you are a coal company and you have a couple hundred employees, and you’ve got to pay for these men to go be tested for six hours ... times $30 an hour. You can see pretty quickly how you get into the forties and fifties and sixties and then thousands of dollars,” Smith said.

“I do have the power, and this committee has the power, to stop this kind of nonsense,” he said.

Although Jones also cast the sole vote against SB 224, nobody spoke against it.

Last month, Lexington mine-safety lawyer Tony Oppegard told the Herald-Leader that the legislature voted unanimously in 2007 to require mine foremen to attend state safety training after a series of fatal mine accidents in Kentucky, including Harlan County’s Darby mine explosion in 2006 that killed five men.

“Foremen are responsible for everyone under their supervision,” Oppegard said. “That is an awesome responsibility. Their knowledge has to be greater than everyone else’s in their crew.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics