Coal states pare mine safety checks, wor­ry­ing crit­ics

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DY­LAN LOVAN

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kathy Bartlett watched help­lessly this spring as Ken­tucky law­mak­ers cut back on mine safety in­spec­tions and re­placed them with coach­ing ses­sions on min­ers’ safety habits.

She knows more than most what’s at stake.

Bartlett’s son, Rickey Thorpe, was crushed to death in a western Ken­tucky un­der­ground mine in 2015 when a coal-dig­ging ma­chine’s 17-ton cut­ting head — propped up with wooden boards — gave out as he worked un­der­neath it.

Bartlett, who re­cently vis­ited her son’s grave on what would have been his 31st birth­day, says that’s why the state shouldn’t re­duce the num­ber of tra­di­tional in­spec­tions.

“Them pass­ing this [law], it’s to­tally wrong,” she said. “I was to­tally against it, but that’s one per­son against thou­sands.”

State of­fi­cials say they aren’t eas­ing up on en­force­ment. They say the new law puts of­fi­cials in the mines more fre­quently to work with min­ers on safe work­ing habits.

Ap­palachian coal states such as Ken­tucky have seen a slow­down in min­ing and are look­ing to trim the re­quired num­ber of an­nual in­spec­tions. West Vir­ginia law­mak­ers con­sid­ered scal­ing back manda­tory in­spec­tions to one from four this year but backed off amid crit­i­cism.

With Ken­tucky’s law, passed by the Repub­li­can­con­trolled leg­is­la­ture, state of­fi­cials can re­place half of the six re­quired in­spec­tions with “an­a­lyst vis­its” that fo­cus on coach­ing. The law still al­lows for in­creased in­spec­tions if of­fi­cials iden­tify a prob­lem.

The re­duc­tions come as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­poses cuts

to the De­part­ment of La­bor, which ad­min­is­ters the fed­eral mine safety pro­gram, even as Trump seeks to rein­vig­o­rate the coal in­dus­try. Fed­eral in­spec­tors are re­quired by law to con­duct four in­spec­tions a year on un­der­ground mines.

In West Vir­ginia, a back­lash to the pro­posed state cut­backs may have caught law­mak­ers by sur­prise.

“Frankly, I think the at­tempt [to pass cut­backs] re­ceived na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion in West Vir­ginia, and I don’t think those who were lead­ing that charge were pre­pared for that,” said Phil Smith, United Mine Work­ers of Amer­ica spokesman.

West Vir­ginia recorded its fifth min­ing death June 13, sur­pass­ing last year’s to­tal of three. Nine coal min­ers have been killed this year na­tion­wide. A record low of eight died in 2016.

Smith said western min­ing states have all but elim­i­nated state in­spec­tion pro­grams; Illi­nois and Alabama have re­duced theirs. Vir­ginia re­quires two an­nual in­spec­tions on un­der­ground mines.

State of­fi­cials and in­dus­try ad­vo­cates praise the new Ken­tucky law, say­ing it will put in­spec­tors in the mine more fre­quently but al­ter their role. In­spec­tors on an­a­lyst vis­its can still write ci­ta­tions if they see vi­o­la­tions.

“We can still do as many in­spec­tions as we want, and if there’s a rea­son to be there more of­ten than three in­spec­tions or four in­spec­tions, we’re go­ing to be there,” said Allen Lut­trell, Ken­tucky’s De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources com­mis­sioner.

“If you’ve got a nor­mal min­ing ac­tiv­ity and things are go­ing in com­pli­ance, then in my opin­ion, the time is bet­ter spent per­form­ing ob­ser­va­tions and coach­ing and talk­ing to the in­di­vid­ual coal miner.”

Ken­tucky has done an­a­lyst vis­its in mines for decades, but they’ve never taken the place of manda­tory in­spec­tions. As min­ing in the state de­clined in re­cent years, so has the num­ber of in­spec­tors. There were 282 op­er­at­ing mines in 2015, down from 513 in 2010. Over those five years, the num­ber of avail­able in­spec­tors and an­a­lysts dropped from 121 to 64, largely be­cause of de­creased fund­ing.

Dur­ing an­a­lyst vis­its, of­fi­cials ob­serve work habits, such as how min­ers op­er­ate equip­ment, lift and per­form other tasks, said Jim Vicini, direc­tor of Ken­tucky’s Di­vi­sion of Mine Safety.

Ken­tucky Coal Association Pres­i­dent Tyler White said other in­dus­tries have turned to coach­ing to im­prove safety.

“To the peo­ple out there that would mis­char­ac­ter­ize this [law] and say you’re just try­ing to place the blame on the min­ers for ac­ci­dents, well no, we’re not,” White said.

Mine safety ad­vo­cates are skep­ti­cal of the an­a­lyst vis­its, which Smith called “an eas­ing of en­force­ment.”

Tony Oppe­gard, a mine safety lawyer in Ken­tucky, said the pro­gram “sounds good on pa­per, but how much prac­ti­cal ef­fect it re­ally has is very du­bi­ous.”

Oppe­gard said the ma­jor­ity of coal mine ac­ci­dents are be­cause of neg­li­gence by com­pany of­fi­cials, but Vicini said stud­ies show most in­juries can be at­trib­uted to min­ers not prac­tic­ing safe habits.

Shift­ing em­pha­sis from find­ing vi­o­la­tions to coach­ing be­hav­ior, Oppe­gard said, is “code for say­ing min­ers are too stupid to work safely.”

In the case of Thorpe’s 2015 death, Oppe­gard said his su­per­vi­sors cre­ated the un­safe en­vi­ron­ment by al­low­ing the ma­chine to be propped up with wooden boards — a con­clu­sion sup­ported by fed­eral in­spec­tors.

But that dan­ger could have been spot­ted on an an­a­lyst visit, said John Mura, spokesman for the state cab­i­net that over­sees the De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

Bartlett said she doubts coach­ing would have been enough and that com­pany man­agers can place work­ers in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions even if ev­ery­one knows it’s dan­ger­ous.

“The night that my son got killed … he was do­ing as he was told,” Bartlett said.

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