Energy & Environment

Lawmakers in both Kentucky and West Virginia are working to loosen mine safety regulations, alarming some mine safety experts.

Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill that reduces the number of underground mine inspections. Similar legislation is pending in West Virginia’s Senate but with more substantial changes. Under that bill, the state’s mining inspection system would move from enforcement to a “compliance assistance” program.

Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard has served as the state’s mine safety prosecutor and as an adviser to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Oppegard doubted that the bills could help increase coal production or improve the business climate for mining. Rather, he said, it’s likely to make mining more dangerous.

“West Virginia has no mine safety law anymore if that passes. It’ll be a joke,” he said. “And Kentucky’s is about a step above a joke.”

West Virginia Coal Association vice president Chris Hamilton said that given tightening budgets, states would be better served to leave mine inspections to the federal agency, which already inspects each mine four times a year, and instead focus state dollars on safety training programs. But even Hamilton said he thinks West Virginia’s bill goes too far.

“Going from four to one inspection might be a little too drastic,” he said. “Why not go with two inspections and two compliance visits?”

West Virginia’s bill is currently being reworked by lawmakers, according to the bill’s lead sponsor, Randy Smith.

John Mura, director of communications for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, explained that his state recently reduced the number of inspections from six to four. The new bill would require three state mine inspections and three “safety analyst” visits.

Occupational health and safety expert Celeste Monforton, an assistant research professor at George Washington University, called the legislation “short-sighted.” She said scaling back safety measures is contradictory to protecting jobs, which is a surprise move given the insecurity that persists in the industry today. She found it troubling considering the recent resurgence of black lung disease in the region.

Monforton said she is also concerned that reductions in state-level inspections could come at the same time as changes to federal mine safety inspection. She predicted that President Trump’s anticipated budget will likely result in reductions in federal inspections, leaving miners at risk.

Correction: this story was corrected on March 17, 2017, to clarify the number of required inspections proposed in Kentucky.

Based at WVPB in Wheeling, WV, Glynis Board covers energy and the environment.