A former state mine inspector indicted for taking bribes from a state lawmaker is now facing charges from the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.
The commission charged Kelly Shortridge with four counts of violating state ethics laws for his part in a scheme with Democratic state Rep. W. Keith Hall. A federal grand jury has indicted Hall for paying Shortridge more than $46,000 to ignore safety violations at some mines Hall owned. Shortridge is accused of trying to extort more money from Hall and for lying to federal agents.
Both Hall and Shortridge have pleaded not guilty in federal court. The ethics commission unveiled a formal complaint against Shortridge that could lead to a civil penalty after a formal hearing.
Hall represented Pike County for 14 years before being defeated in the May primary.
After the Kentucky General Assembly cut the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing budget by more than four million, Governor Steve Beshear is ordering it to restructure. Effective this Sunday, the office will become the Division of Mine Safety under the Department of Natural Resources. Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson Dick Brown says the budget cuts and the General Assembly’s reduction of mine inspections are cause for concern.
“Gov. Beshear and Energy Secretary [Leonard] Peters both had warned the General Assembly that any drastic cuts such as this could have a negative effect on mine safety, and that is our main concern, of course, is making sure that miners are in the mines and that they are safe and go home at night to their families,” said Brown.
Brown says although there has been a recent drop in coal production, the mines are still open and require inspections and oversight. He says any news regarding potential layoffs will come next week after meeting with mine safety office employees.
The Kentucky Senate will likely restore funding to conduct coal mine inspections in the state budget. Currently, mines get six state inspections a year.
A previous draft of the budget cut the number to two. Senate President Robert Stivers says his chamber will likely restore funding for six inspections. But that doesn't mean Stivers wants to keep the amount of money exactly the same. He says the House budget didn’t address the reduction in the number of coal mines, which he argues requires fewer inspections.
“They funded it at the level that it has been without recognition of closures and loss of jobs,” said Stivers. “So it’ll be a function of that, looking at closure and loss of jobs and seeing what’s actually out there.”
The Senate’s budget initially reduced the number of mandatory mine inspections from six per year to just two, prompting criticism from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, which said in a statement that further reductions in its budget would put coal miners at increased risk.
A slash to Governor Steve Beshear’s proposal for mine safety in the Kentucky House budget bill passed this month has many safety advocates concerned. They say there might not be enough money to conduct required inspections.
Gov. Beshear has proposed $7.6 million in each of the next two years for the state program that inspects and licenses coal mines. But when the budget bill was passed by the House, Beshear’s budget office noticed the number had been reduced to $5.3 million per year.
The Courier-Journal reports the 15 percent reduction was not discussed during the budget committee meeting or floor session when the bill was passed. In response, Gov. Beshear says his administration is “very concerned about the lack of sufficient funds to ensure safety” for miners, and the House and Senate will work together to ensure the funding is there “to cover critical needs in the agency.”
An influential Eastern Kentucky legislator owns the permits on Pike County coal mines that have been cited repeatedly by the state for safety and environmental violations.
Rep. Keith Hall’s Beech Creek Coal Co. and others that are mining coal on the Phelps Democrat’s permits have been cited since 2010 for dropping rocks on homes, mining outside of permitted areas, water pollution and failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds.
Barbara Eldridge lives next to the largest of Beech Creek’s three surface mines near Phelps. A year ago, a rock slab the size of a truck tire slammed into her home, denting a wall and shattering a paved walkway.
“It’s a danger to everybody out here, I think. Every time you hear the blast, you wonder if something’s about to come down on you,” Eldridge said.
Neighbors and state records say rocks from that mine also have landed on the properties of four other neighbors, though no injuries have been reported.
As the Environmental Protection Agency begins its public forums on coal mining permits in Kentucky, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell is rallying for coal to be a bigger part of the nation's energy portfolio.