Critics are complaining that three measures pending in the Kentucky legislature could undo key provisions of the state’s mine safety law.
One would sharply reduce inspections performed by the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. Another would would cut the number of medics on duty at small mines. And the other would strike a provision that requires ventilation fans to run continuously in underground mines to prevent the buildup of explosive gases.
“It this were to pass, it would be signing the death warrants of hundreds of coal miners across this state,” charged United Mine Workers of America representative Steve Earle. “If they get away with this, God help the Kentucky coal miners.”
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor challenged Earle’s contention, saying the measures are intended to help small mining companies survive in a tough economic climate and pose no added dangers for miners.
“This is a smoke screen for the union,” Caylor said. “They have no concern for safety. Their main concern is to put the small operator out of business, because it’s nearly impossible to unionize a small mine.”
Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard said Kentucky’s mine safety law is clearly “under attack” only two years after it was enacted.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee this week approved the measure that Oppegard said would change a provision of the state’s mine safety act that requires at least six state inspections per year of every coal mine.
Under the proposal, Oppegard said, mines could effectively go an entire year without a single inspection.
State Sen. Tom Jensen, chairman of the natural resources committee, said the measure still would require inspectors to visit mines six times a year, but the visits could involve other activities like mine rescue training.
“We think you can do both at the same time,” Jensen said. “I don’t see it as being that harmful.”
Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who formerly worked for state and federal mine regulatory agencies, said the measure “guts” the state’s mine safety law by removing one of its most important provisions.
Earle joined Oppegard in Frankfort to rail against changes to the state’s mine safety law, which was enacted following a series of underground disasters.
In all, 16 miners were killed on the job in Kentucky in 2006. Five of the deaths were from a single Harlan County underground mine explosion. Nationwide, 73 miners were killed on the job that year, including 12 in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia.
Congress and coal state legislatures reacted by revamping mine safety laws in 2007.
Earle said he fears the coal industry now is pressing lawmakers to undo certain provisions of those laws.
“That is so absolutely false,” Caylor said. “It’s utterly ridiculous.”
A measure sponsored by Jensen would lift a requirement that ventilation fans be kept running continuously, a provision included in the 2007 mine safety reforms. Such fans keep air flowing through underground mines to prevent methane gas from accumulating to explosive levels.
The proposal passed the Senate last month 37-0 and is awaiting in the House along with another controversial proposal sponsored by state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps. That measure calls for reducing the number of medics required at small mines from two to one. It has been approved by a House committee and is awaiting a vote on the House floor.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he’s not sure when the medic proposal will be called for a floor vote. Hall said he doesn’t intend to push for a vote until after he has discussed the measure with opponents, including the United Mine Workers.
Earle called on Gov. Steve Beshear to intervene on behalf of miners and ask lawmakers to shelve the proposals, or, if they were to pass, to veto them.
“Gov. Beshear promised us when he was campaigning that he was committed to make sure that our coal miners have a safe place to work,” Earle said. “We want him to step up to the plate.”
Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton said the governor is indeed committed to mine safety and is monitoring the situation in the legislature.
The measures are Senate Bill 64, Senate Bill 170, House Bill 119.
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