Mine safety bills fire up tensions in coal country

Two mining bills designed to eliminate safety checks for the coal industry have reignited smoldering tensions between miners and mine owners.

In West Virginia, lawmakers advanced revisions to a controversial bill that originally would have eliminated state safety checks at coal mines.

A similar effort made its way through the Kentucky Legislature. That bill would decrease the number of mandated safety inspections to three, with only one full electrical inspection. The Kentucky bill does allow for up to six safety inspections. An on-site safety equipment check could be subbed out by a written “safety analysis” report based on conversations with miners.

Longtime safety experts say they are shocked at the scope of the proposals that will seemingly void violations that traditionally carry stiff monetary penalties.

“No one wants to be perceived as being against safety."

— Chris Hamilton, West Virginia Coal Association

“It’s breathtaking in its scope,” said Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.

McAteer, an internationally recognized expert on mine safety, led a team that pushed for strengthening West Virginia’s mine safety efforts following the death of 29 miners after a coal dust explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal in 2010.

The Kentucky and West Virginia proposals come at a time when the industry is fighting for its survival. While they are both state deregulation proposals, both come as President Trump has pledged to take steps at the federal level to boost the beleaguered industry.

Coal production hit its peak in 2008, but when President Obama came into office, he rolled out a series of regulations that he said were designed to protect America’s streams and waterways from the pollution caused by the mining operations. Those regulations, in concert with others, crippled the industry, leading to a loss of 50,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, according to a study by researchers at the Duke Nichols School of the Environment.

Despite their dwindling numbers, coal miners played a central role in the 2016 election.

Trump campaigned on a promise to end Obama’s “War on Coal” -- and put out-of-work coal miners back on the job.

Trump traveled to West Virginia, donned a hard hat and promised jobs would return to an area whose very identity has been linked to the coal-mining industry for generations. And last month, Trump signed legislation undoing a regulation he called a “job-killing rule” that blocks coal-mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams.

Coal advocates are hoping loosened regulations will fire up the moribund industry.

Coal advocates are hoping loosened regulations will fire up the moribund industry.

But all of the goodwill came to a screeching halt a few weeks ago when the pair of bills was introduced in two of the country’s top coal-producing states.

In West Virginia, state Sen. Randy Smith, a Republican and Mattiki Coal Co. official, initially introduced a bill that would strip almost all coal mine safety enforcement by state inspectors. It was billed as a bridge between the fledgling industry and those working the coal mines, but received strong pushback by the pro-worker unions and organizations.

West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton expressed his skepticism of the first bill to Fox News.

“No one wants to be perceived as being against safety,” he said, adding that tweaks needed to be made before his organization would sign off.

Hamilton was leery of the initial bill, fearing it could compromise safety.

Hamilton was leery of the initial bill, fearing it could compromise safety.

United Mine Workers of America spokesperson Ted Hapney also said the union objected to the original version of the bill that included “losing three inspections a year and reducing -- well, actually taking away -- the enforcement power of the agency.”

Following a burst of negative national attention and strong pushback, Smith made some concessions -- but maintains his original bill made the impact he intended.

“The bill I initially introduced was designed to be shocking,” Smith told Fox News. “I wanted it to be enough to get people talking. I think too often, we don’t have serious conversations about mine safety until someone is hurt or killed. I was able to accomplish getting this discussion moving without either of those having to happen first.”

Smith’s new bill focuses on modernizing coal mining regulations. He pushes back against allegations his motives were more about profit than security.

“Sometimes it is hard to get groups to come together,” he told Fox News. “This bill forced us all to come to the table to have a real discussion about the issue.”