Op-Ed

Killing workers to create coal jobs?

Gary Bentley
Gary Bentley

Last September, 29-year-old old Ricky Thorpe lost his life in a Webster County mining accident. In January, 36-year-old Nathan G. Phillips of Hopkins County lost his life in an underground mining accident.

Just a month from Phillips’ death, Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, at the request of the Kentucky Coal Association, sponsored Senate Bill 224, which guts safety training for mine foremen. Two weeks later, Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, sponsored SB 297 to stop inspections of Kentucky coal mines by the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety.

Girdler said that nearly 10,000 coal-industry jobs have been lost and there is no longer a need for the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to both perform mine safety inspections.

Kentucky does not need to add more names to the list of coal mine fatalities, but that’s exactly what Smith’s and Girdler’s actions would do.

Girdler, who called his bill “a step in the right direction for fiscal responsibility,” is ignoring the cost associated with injured or killed miners, not to mention the cost associated with equipment failures or collapsed mines. True fiscal responsibility would allow state and federal personnel to continue working together to ensure the safety of our coal mines.

Girdler explained, “Instead of coming in and writing you up for doing something wrong, you know, if you’re doing an underground roof bolt system, maybe I’m gonna come in and say, ‘Hey, keep that elbow down. That way if something falls down, you’re not going to lose your arm.’”

I think what Girdler is referring to, although it’s hard to decipher because he’s using terms that I don’t recognize after spending 12 years as an underground coal miner, is installing roof bolts according to the roof control plan. This is the most important job in an underground mine, and the procedures are approved by MSHA.

This plan is put in place to protect every miner who enters the mine. It’s not about keeping your elbows down, it’s about keeping the mountain from falling down and crushing miners.

Girdler continues, “As compared to writing up a bulldozer for not having a windshield wiper working when it’s 90 degrees and sunny outside.” The willful ignorance of this statement stuns me. It may be sunny and 90 degrees out but dust is a common nuisance of surface mining; it can deplete visibility for an employee. Additionally, weather is known to be unpredictable; it can be sunny outside one hour and then rain can roll in the next.

All mining equipment is required to be fully functional according to manufacturer’s specifications; these rules and inspections keep miners safe. Girdler should not be sponsoring bills that can and will add to the list of accidents, injuries and deaths in Kentucky’s mining industry.

“The mine inspectors are basically trying to validate their existence. You’re seeing 12-15 inspectors a day on one particular job site,” says Girdler. When you’re talking about the safety of miners, inspectors and frequent inspections maintain a high standard of safety.

We cannot allow bills to be sponsored by politicians who are ignorant to the industry. You don’t create jobs by killing your workers.

Smith and Girdler, do not be friends of coal; be friends of coal miners.

Gary Bentley is a Whitesburg native who worked 12 years as an underground coal miner in Southeastern and Western Kentucky.

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