coal miners

becca schimmel

Congressional leaders say legislation to support health care benefits for retired miners could be attached to a must-pass spending bill this week.

The United Mine Workers of America has accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of blocking action on the Miners Protection Act, a bill to fund pensions and health benefits.  But at a weekend event in Louisville McConnell denied preventing a vote.

“I haven’t been preventing one at any point,” McConnell told Ryland Barton of Kentucky Public Radio. “The issue is miners’ health care and I’ve advocated that the House add miners’ health care to the C.R. — the continuing resolution — that we’ll be voting on.”

McConnell indicated the health care will be attached to the spending bill Congress must pass in order to avoid a government shutdown. However, it’s unclear if that will include money for miners’ pension benefits.

A group of Democratic senators including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin have pledged to block Senate proceedings until action is taken on the miners’ bill.

Tennessee Valley Authority

The number of coal jobs in Kentucky continue to decline.  A report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet says the number of jobs statewide dropped by 6.9 percent.

In Western Kentucky, coal jobs dropped 7.9 percent from April to June. The amount of coal produced in that region declined 12.3 percent. Production in the state’s eastern coalfield is the lowest it’s been since 1915.

Kentucky now has less miners than in 1898, before the extension of railroads allowed for explosive growth in production and jobs in Eastern Kentucky.

Analysts say there are a number of reasons for the decline, including competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas; tougher federal rules to protect air and water quality and the growth of renewable energy sources.

US Geological Survey, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After a federal Court of Appeals rejected an industry-led challenge last month, a new federal rule to reduce coal miners’ exposure to dangerous dust goes into effect Monday.

In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration began a campaign to end black lung disease, which is caused by breathing in large amounts of coal dust. The disease was in decline for decades but has experienced a recent resurgence.

“This disease is far from over,” MSHA Secretary Joe Main said. “Miners have suffered, families have suffered from this disease, and the time has come to fix this problem. And implementation of this rule will help us get there.”

Part of MSHA’s campaign includes federal rules to keep better track of the coal dust to which miners are exposed. Companies now have to take more dust samples, as well as sample for an entire shift. Over the next few months, coal miners working in the jobs with the most dust will have to wear small continuous personal dust monitors.

There Are Only 11,600 Coal Miners Left in Kentucky

Nov 10, 2014
Frankie Steele / KYCIR

Overall coal production in Kentucky remained steady between the second and third quarters of 2014, but that’s because losses in the eastern part of the state were offset by gains in the west.

But the quarter also brought new lows for the state in terms of coal employment, according to the state's quarterly coal report. The new employment numbers—just 11,670 coal miners working in Kentucky, and only 7,229 miners in Eastern Kentucky—represent the lowest ever recorded in the state since it began keeping track in 1927.

Coal employment in Kentucky has been decreasing fairly steadily since 1979, but the latest dramatic drop started around 2011. A number of factors have affected coal production in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields: low natural gas prices; declining reserves; power plants’ ability to easily burn cheaper, high-sulfur coal from the Illinois Basin; and stricter environmental regulations have all contributed.

The situation hasn’t been quite as dire in Western Kentucky, which traditionally employed far fewer miners and produced less coal than the east. That’s no longer true—in the first quarter of 2013, Western Kentucky production surpassed Eastern Kentucky coal. Between the second and third quarters of this year, Eastern Kentucky’s coal production dropped by 4.3 percent, while Western Kentucky’s production grew by 5.2 percent.

Coal miners who work in small mines are more than twice as likely to contract the most serious form of black lung disease, according to a new federal study.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied more than 3700 coal miners between 2005 and 2012. They found that miners who worked in mines with fewer than 50 employees were more likely to both get complicated pneumoconiosis and show signs of abnormal lung functions.

Wes Addington is the deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. He says, it’s one thing to see that coal miners are still developing mild lung problems.

Coal miners are continuing to be the subjects of TV political ads in a Lexington-based congressional district that has no mines. Republican challenger Andy Barr went up Wednesday with another such ad in which miners, their faces covered in coal dust, criticize 6th District Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler.