When you think coal mining, your think West Virginia and Kentucky. And when you think coal mine disasters, you think West Virginia and Kentucky. Traditionally, West Virginia and Kentucky have taken a special interest in the safety of their miners — to the extent that they both run their own mine safety enforcement programs that supplement enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
At least up until now.
With the Trump administration blaming safety and environmental regulations for killing the coal industry, and threatening to “dismantle the administrative state” — translated as dismantling the protections that working people have earned over the past century — one might think that its time for states to step up and play a stronger role in mine safety. But West Virginia and Kentucky seem to be headed in the exact opposite direction.
As the Huffington Post reports:
A bill approved by Kentucky lawmakers Tuesday would cut back the number of state inspections of coal mines per year. It would allow the state’s Department of Natural Resources to substitute some of those safety inspections with what’s known as safety analyses. Conveniently for coal operators, the analyses do not pose the threat of citations and fines. The measure also slashes the number of required electrical inspections from two to one.
“It’s really infuriating. It really decimates the mine safety agency,” said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert and Kentucky-based lawyer who represents miners.
Meanwhile, in neighboring West Virginia, Charleston Gazette Mail reporter Ken Ward Jr. reports, “breathtaking” new legislation has been introduced that would drastically change the states mine safety law:
State safety inspectors wouldn’t inspect West Virginia’s coal mines anymore. They would conduct “compliance visits and education.”
Violations of health and safety standards wouldn’t produce state citations and fines, either. Mine operators would receive “compliance assistance visit notices.”
And West Virginia regulators wouldn’t have authority to write safety and health regulations. Instead, they could only “adopt policies … [for] improving compliance assistance” in the state’s mines.
In addition, the requirement for four inspections every year for each underground coal mine would be reduced to one compliance assistance visit for each of those mines.
Ward writes that only if inspectors identified an “imminent danger” would they be able issue to notices of violation or levy fines for mine operators or coal companies for any safety hazards. Meanwhile, the bill also emphasizes a “behavioral safety” focus where instead of correcting unsafe working conditions, employers focus on worker behavior. “The bill would maintain and encourage the use of “individual personal assessments,” which target specific mine employees — rather than mine operators or coal companies — for violations, fines and, possibly, revocation of certifications or licenses needed to work in the industry.”
Former MSHA director Davit McAteer noted that
It is shocking that, after all these years and the numbers of West Virginians who have died in the mines, for the state to even consider this. The state needs to be involved in making sure we are protecting our citizens. This should be one of the primary goals of the state government.
McAteer also pointed out that that West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths last year and has had two deaths already in 2017.