Safety advocate: Paul's comments on federal coal mine regulations 'idiotic'

FRANKFORT — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul is coming under attack from union coal miners and a prominent mine safety expert for questioning the federal regulation of mining in a national magazine.

The comments attributed to Paul in Details, a monthly magazine published by Condé Nast Publications, reportedly came from a public appearance Paul made at the Harlan Center in Harlan County before the May 18 GOP primary election.

"Is there a certain amount of accidents and unfortunate things that do happen, no matter what the regulations are?" Paul said in response to a question about a West Virginia mine explosion in April that killed 29 workers.

"The bottom line is I'm not an expert, so don't give me the power in Washington to be making rules. You live here, and you have to work in the mines.

"You'd try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don't, I'm thinking that no one will apply for those jobs."

Paul's campaign blasted the Details profile and follow-up stories about the profile that appeared on Web sites operated by The Washington Post and The Hill.

"This is sloppy reporting on more sloppy reporting," Paul spokesman Ryan Hogan said in a statement. "Dr. Paul has been clear that he favors more local control rather than ham-fisted, one-size-fits-all dictates from Washington. Insinuating Washington bureaucrats are the only solution to problems is insulting to Kentucky."

Still, Paul thinks "punishment must be netted out" if mine safety laws were broken in the West Virginia explosion, Hogan said.

The campaign of Paul's Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, had no immediate comment.

Members of the United Mine Workers from Kentucky have scheduled a news conference via phone Tuesday to take Paul to task for the remarks.

Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who is a mine-safety advocate, called Paul's statement "idiotic."

He said it shows a lack of understanding of Eastern Kentucky, the region's economy and of the history of underground coal mining in the region, where for generations coal operators strongly opposed efforts by workers to form unions. In Harlan County, deadly battles over union organizing helped earned the county the nickname "Bloody Harlan."

Working conditions in underground mines are dangerous enough with federal and state rules, Oppegard said. If the industry were unregulated by government, "there would be a bloodbath," he said.

Paul is misinformed when he says no one would take jobs in mines that weren't safe, Oppegard said. Miners would take jobs even in unsafe mines because they need work, he said.

"There's no other job opportunities," Oppegard said.

He also said U.S. senators work on all kinds of legislation on which they are not experts. "What does he think senators do?"

In response to the April mine explosion in West Virginia, Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have introduced legislation to better control mining companies that violate work-safety rules.

Paul also reportedly said in the magazine profile that the controversial mining practice of mountaintop removal should be called something else.

"I think they should name it something better," he said. "The top ends up flatter, but we're not talking about Mount Everest.

"We're talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I've seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass."

He said most people "would say the land is of enhanced value because now you can build on it."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader