FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky would halt its mine inspections in the beleaguered coalfields, ceding the job to a federal agency, under legislation that passed the Republican-led state Senate on Thursday.
Sen. Chris Girdler said his measure, which passed on a 25-11 vote, would end duplication from federal and state inspections and offer some relief for struggling coal operators.
Girdler, R-Somerset, said the coal industry is suffering from “strangulation by regulation.”
Sen. Robin Webb, a former coal miner, said the state has a legitimate responsibility to inspect mines.
“I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policymaker, and I cannot support this measure,” said Webb, D-Grayson.
Currently, the state inspects underground mines at least six times a year and surface mines at least twice yearly. The bill would shift state inspectors to different duties as mine safety analysts. They would monitor mining duties in their new role, correcting bad behavior to enhance safety and prevent accidents, Girdler said.
The bill represents a dramatic shift in state policy. About a decade ago, Kentucky lawmakers boosted the number of annual state inspections in response to a spate of mining deaths, including a methane gas explosion in Harlan County that killed five people.
But the sharp downturn in the coal industry in recent years has resulted in far fewer mines to inspect.
In 2009, there were 245 licensed mines in Kentucky, according to the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. By 2014, that number had dropped to 136.
Federal inspectors are required to visit and inspect the nation’s surface mines twice a year and underground mines at least four times a year. In addition to routine inspections, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration began increased, aggressive blitz inspections at troubled mines — many in Kentucky — after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed 29 underground miners in West Virginia.
The coal industry recorded its fewest deaths ever on record last year with 11. There were two mining fatalities in Kentucky.
The downturn in Kentucky’s coal economy has led to the loss of about 9,000 mining jobs since 2008 as production has been cut in half over that same time.
Coal supporters blame tougher regulations enforced by President Barack Obama’s administration for the industry’s slump. Appalachian coal businesses have also faced higher production costs and competition from other coal basins and natural gas.
The Senate-passed measure next goes to the Democratic-led House.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo sounded skeptical about the measure. He said Thursday the mining profession is dangerous, and said fewer inspections “is probably not good public policy.”
Another mining-related bill passed by the Senate on Thursday would allow coal companies to offer their own safety training for mine foremen, based on federal workplace standards for mine examiners. That bill also goes to the House next.