Coal Country Republicans Set to Cut Mine Safety Inspections

They must have a lot of faith that Trump will keep miners safe.
Miners' boots sit atop their lockers before the start of an afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, West Virginia.
Miners' boots sit atop their lockers before the start of an afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, West Virginia.
Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Republican legislators in Kentucky and West Virginia seem to have a newfound respect for the federal government and its regulatory abilities. In fact, they trust Washington so much that they’re willing to relinquish much of their own oversight of coal mine safety to the feds.

A bill approved by Kentucky lawmakers Tuesday would cut back the number of state inspections of coal mines per year. It would allow the state’s Department of Natural Resources to substitute some of those safety inspections with what’s known as safety analyses. Conveniently for coal operators, the analyses do not pose the threat of citations and fines.

The measure also slashes the number of required electrical inspections from two to one.

“It’s really infuriating. It really decimates the mine safety agency,” said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert and Kentucky-based lawyer who represents miners.

Noting that the Kentucky statehouse is under full GOP control for the first time in decades, Oppegard added, “I’m kind of surprised they didn’t just eliminate all inspections.”

Leave that to West Virginia.

Under a proposal introduced there over the weekend, the state’s inspections of coal mines would henceforth be considered “compliance visits.” As the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward Jr. explains, a state official on such a visit could not issue any citations unless there was an immediate danger. The proposal “essentially eliminates any meaningful role for the state” in enforcing mine safety laws, Ward writes.

“It’s really infuriating. It really decimates the mine safety agency.”

- Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard

The Kentucky measure is headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who’s expected to sign it. The West Virginia bill is only now under consideration by a Senate committee. As in Kentucky, Republicans control both chambers of the West Virginia statehouse. The state’s governor, Jim Justice, is a billionaire coal operator and a Democrat.

The backers of those proposals argue that state inspections can afford to be cut in part because federal officials do their own inspections. Under federal law, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department, inspects every active coal mine at least four times each year.

But Kentucky and West Virginia have long had their own safety programs as well, under the rationale that the states share an obligation to protect miners and prevent disasters like the one at Upper Big Branch, which claimed 29 West Virginia miners in 2010. Advocates like Oppegard argue that the state inspections are essential to keeping mines safe, since federal officials alone don’t have all the resources and legal powers necessary to adequately monitor all the nation’s mines.

If anything, federal policing of the coal industry will probably be scaled back under the Trump administration. President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans have been rapidly peeling back all manner of regulations on businesses, including coal companies. Trump’s new commerce secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, owned the Sago mine in West Virginia in 2006 when an explosion there cost the lives of 12 miners.

Although the White House has not yet installed a new head of mine safety, Trump had complained on the campaign trail that mining regulations were too onerous. Coal operators could barely survive, he lamented.

“I have friends that own the mines,” he said at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. “I mean, they can’t live.”

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