With Kentucky Mining Board Scrapped, Safety Advocates Worry

May 24, 2017

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A board that was ostensibly responsible for reviewing coal miners’ training and reviewing all proposed coal mine safety regulations will hold its last meeting next week.

The Kentucky Mining Board consisted of eight members — three from labor, three representing coal industry management, one citizen and one state regulator. In pushing for the board to be abolished, the state Energy and Environment Cabinet said its responsibilities were duplicated, and would be distributed among other agencies and commissions. But mine safety advocates worry the move will end up harming the state’s approximately 6,000 remaining coal miners.

The Kentucky Mining Board has been in existence for decades, but was reorganized by Gov. Paul Patton in 2001. It was abolished by a bill that passed the legislature earlier this year, with little discussion or fanfare. The bill flew under the radar — so much so that board members weren’t aware the board had been dismantled until receiving a letter last week.

“The abolishment of this board will result in zero loss of oversight,” said Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura. “The majority of the mining board’s duties are duplicated in the Mine Safety Review Commission’s duties and that was created in 2001. So there’s been a duplication and we thought it was time to end it.”

‘We knew it was coming eventually…’

On paper, the Kentucky Mining Board is responsible for establishing criteria and standards for coal miner education and training. When miners are disciplined for failing drug tests, some of them end up before the board to get reinstated.

The board is also supposed to review and approve all administrative regulations proposed by the Energy and Environment Cabinet that “relate to the mining of coal, penalties and miner certification,” though longtime board member and United Mine Workers representative Tim Miller said that hasn’t happened in years.

“Through this whole administration, the current administration, there’s been a movement to try to lessen the load on the board and try to move things [off the board’s plate], so it was inevitable,” Miller said. “We knew it was coming eventually, that they would eventually try to abolish the board.”

Miller said the board also wasn’t asked for input on the most recent mine safety legislation passed by the Kentucky General Assembly; earlier this year, the body voted to allow state mine inspectors to replace up to three of the required six state inspections with mine-safety analysis visits. The bill also reduced the number of required mine electrical inspections from two to one, citing diminishing resources and the redundancy of having both state and federal mine inspections.

Lexington mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard said that bill and the abolishment of the mining board raise questions about how invested the state is in coal miner safety.

“It sends a bad message to coal miners that the state government really doesn’t care about their safety,” he said. “We’re abolishing this board that’s charged with oversight of mine safety in Kentucky. They go over every fatal accident report, every serious non-fatal accident report, and they can make recommendations to the governor, to the general assembly, based on accidents that have occurred, here are changes we need to make in the statute or in the regulations.”

EEC spokesman Mura said abolishing the board will save the state $30,000 a year. Each of the board members is paid $150 for each meeting, plus expenses. And he said the board’s remaining duties won’t go by the wayside, but will be divvied among others.

“The Mining Board retains approval rights over specialty certifications,” Mura said. “These will now be done by the Division of Mine Safety and any remaining duties will be shared by the Mine Safety Review Commission and the Division of Mine Safety.”

But by abolishing the Mining Board, the legislature has ended the participation of a group of people with first-hand experience in the coal industry that is perhaps uniquely able to evaluate coal miner training and how regulations will affect miner safety.

While the Mining Board was made up of people with first-hand experience in coal, the Mine Safety Review Commission consists of three members — all attorneys. By law, the commissioners all have to have at least eight years of practicing law in Kentucky and be currently licensed. They also have to complete a 40-hour coal miner training class.

“There’s a little difference in going to a 40-hour class than spending 40 years in the industry, I can say that,” Miller said.

He estimates the board members together had at least 250 years of experience mining coal, which he said was valuable when evaluating miner training and drug rehabilitation.

“It’s difficult for a guy to fake it, sitting in front of the mining board with the experience it had,” he said.

The board has also been slowly shrinking due to attrition, Miller said. One member — industry representative James Vicini — was recently appointed to head the Kentucky Division of Mine Safety. Other terms have been allowed to expire and haven’t been filled.

Current Mine Safety Review Commissioner Bryan Hubbard said his commission is qualified to handle the additional duties.

“To the extent that any of the board’s responsibilities pertained to the enforcement of mine safety statutes and regulations, we are the appropriate body to handle that and are uniquely situated to make sure that’s done with absolute authority,” he said.

The board members were initially notified last week of the board’s demise. Mura said additional letters were being issued notifying members their terms would end on June 29, and of the board’s last meeting on June 1 to clear up any outstanding matters.