FRANKFORT – Supporters of a bill liberalizing Kentucky’s mine-safety laws said the measure’s passage in the state Senate on Thursday would provide some relief to a beleaguered coal industry.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 297, would end Kentucky’s mine safety inspection program by converting the state’s 62 inspectors to “safety analysts” whose responsibilities would include correcting dangerous practices through “behavior modification” instead of issuing costly citations. It passed by a 25-11 vote but not before a lively floor debate among senators – some of which come from families with long histories of coal mining.
“I’m for the free markets along with rational oversight deciding what is most efficient, not the government picking winners and losers,” said Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset. “That is exactly what we have seen occur over the last eight years – burdensome regulations, gotcha games and an administration that makes no bones about wanting to put the coal industry out of business.
“I call it strangulation by regulation.”
He said SB 297 would eliminated wasteful duplication between state and federal mine inspectors by making the federal and state efforts more “complementary” to each other. He described an environment where the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors would still do punitive inspections while the state safety analysts would encourage best practices to prevent accidents.
Girdler said Kentucky has lost more than 10,000 coal mining jobs in recent years – or 56 percent of the people directly employed by the coal industry. He said Kentucky is coming off its lowest level of coal production since 1954 and Eastern Kentucky just mined its lowest level since 1932.
Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, said there are only 120 mines left in Kentucky, adding that 318 mines have closed in the last 18 months. He said there was not enough mines open to justify 62 state inspectors.
“We are here today because the war on coal has been tremendously successfully,” said West, who voted for the bill. “At one time we had thousands of mines in this state.”
Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray S. Jones II, D-Pikeville, said he “reluctantly” voted against the bill out of concern that coal mine operators would “take cuts” to safety measures because of the unprecedented economic pressures they face.
“This is not an approach I can support,” he said. “There is a value to having state mine inspectors.”
Sen. Robin L. Webb, D-Grayson, also voted against the measure. She is a former general counsel to a coal mine operator.
“I feel the federal presence,” Webb said. “I felt it in my job as general counsel and as a miner and beyond. That is a D.C. issue. Let’s take that case to Washington. Let’s take the case of the mine inspectors camping out at the few mines we have up working and being onerous and silly in the implementation of the federal law.”
She said federal overreach doesn’t relieve the state of its responsibility to protect Kentucky’s coal miners.
SB 297 now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.