BESSEMER, Ala. – A judge says Alabama regulators aren't properly inspecting the state's coal mines, some of the deepest and most dangerous in North America, and he has given them 10 days to conduct new reviews.
State law requires that each of the approximately 50 coal mines in Alabama be inspected once every 45 days. But the office responsible said it has only three inspectors to do the work, and they also have to check 500 mineral mines and quarries.
"To be thorough, like our law states, for some of these big underground mines it takes weeks and weeks" to conduct a review, said Michael Skates, director of the Mining and Reclamation Division of the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations.
Skates said the judge's order only applies to two large underground coal mines and about 12 surface mines in an area west of Birmingham, but he said he didn't know how his staff will properly inspect them all in such a short time.
Circuit Judge Dan King issued the ruling late Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by the United Mine Workers.
Daryl Dewberry, a union vice president, said Skates' office is so poorly funded that inspectors often must rely on equipment provided by mining companies to calibrate gauges used to test the air in mines for deadly methane gas. He said state funding, which has dropped in recent years, shows mine safety isn't a priority for Alabama politicians.
Methane buildup is a problem in many Alabama mines, some of which are more than 2,000 feet deep. Officials say the vast depth makes ventilation, transportation and rescue operations more difficult than in shallower mines.
A pair of explosions more than 2,100 feet underground killed 13 miners in 2001 in Tuscaloosa County. Two mine disasters this month in West Virginia have again raised concerns about mine safety nationwide.
In his order, King told Gov. Bob Riley and the Legislature "to ensure our workers a place to work that is as safe as we can make it."
"We can always do more, but we should not do less," he wrote.
The Alabama Senate recently urged mining inspectors to conduct the required reviews, but lawmakers didn't approve any extra money.
The governor's office provided an emergency appropriation of $175,000, on top of about $500,000 initially budgeted, that Skates said he would use to hire two more inspectors.
The next hearing is set for April 3, and King ordered the state to provide him with copies of mine inspection reports and to give mining companies a timetable for fixing any problems found. He also ordered Skates to study the use of communication devices, tracking devices and additional emergency oxygen units for all underground coal miners.