The Herald-Leader’s editorial board has a well-established position against the production and use of Kentucky coal. In its latest editorial entitled “Blankenship lessons for Kentucky lawmakers,” it continues its anti-coal drumbeat by mischaracterizing two state budget bills. I feel compelled to correct the public record with facts about Kentucky coal that this editorial board either does not know or, worse, refuses to recognize.
First, 2015 was the safest year in the history of mining in the United States. This fact was the assessment of the federal Mine Safety Health Administration, which said that the mining industry made “outstanding progress,” continued a significant trend of “safer mines and fewer fines” and achieved record lows in all-injury rates per hours worked.
Despite this impressive track record and continued developments in state-of-the-art safety technology like proximity detectors to shut equipment down if miners stand in an unsafe location, the editorial board still tries to paint all coal companies as pushing a “culture of non-compliance.”
Take the description of Senate Bill 224. The editorial said this bill “would end the requirement that mine foremen receive six hours of free state training each year.” This text was clearly written to imply that the bill removes Kentucky’s requirement for foreman training. Yet, SB 224 continues the training of mine foremen, and merely establishes that the federal training protocol can fulfill the state mandate.
This change allows companies to conduct the training with qualified, MSHA-certified trainers from within their companies if they choose to do so with less downtime and travel costs.
As the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety is funded with a declining pool of coal-severance tax revenue, the purpose of SB 224 is to also make better use of these declining funds while maintaining the same exact certification standard.
The description of Senate Bill 297 is similarly misleading. In 2007, Kentucky instituted a mine-safety inspection program to help supplement federal inspections. Like the previously mentioned mine foreman training, the state program is largely dependent upon coal severance tax funds.
In 2007, Kentucky mined 115 million tons of coal and employed more than 16,000 coal miners, and there were 635 MSHA inspector hours on-site per 200,000 miner hours. In 2015, Kentucky coal production dropped to 61 million tons and now employs less than 10,000 coal miners, and MSHA inspector hours on-site per 200,000 miner hours rose to 1,017.
In other words, federal inspections now occur 60 percent more often than in 2007 when Kentucky decided to supplement inspections through the state Division of Mine Safety. The expansion of federal inspection is also visible when comparing the ratio of MSHA inspectors to working coal miners.
In 2008, it was am MSHA inspector for every 20 coal miners. In 2013, it was an MSHA inspector for every eight coal miners. Today, there is an MSHA inspector for every six working coal miners.
Far from a “safety rollback” as the editorial claims, SB 297 assists a state agency funded by declining coal-severance taxes and better employs state personnel into a preventative safety analyst role instead of duplicating a federal inspection program that has expanded while coal’s production and employment have decreased significantly.
The Kentucky Coal Association’s member companies are dedicated to mine safety. As someone who works directly with the leaders in Kentucky’s coal industry, the insinuation that they put “profits over people” is offensive and simply untrue. A safe mine is a productive and profitable mine. Millions of dollars combined with ongoing training and technology are put into keeping coal miners safe, not because of regulations, but because it is the right thing to do and coal companies depend upon and care about the people they work with.
While I expect no change in the continued anti-coal rhetoric of the editorial board, there is a point where the truth must be written about the proactive work companies do every day to keep miners safe in a difficult environment to extract a natural resource that we all depend upon. Some balance or, at the least, the recognition of the facts, is long past overdue.
Bill Bissett is president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
At issue: April 7 Herald-Leader editorial, “Blankenship lessons to Kentucky lawmakers”