As concerns rise about mine safety following an explosion in a Turkish coal mine that killed more than 200, Kentucky mine safety officials are coping with a 38 percent budget cut.
The state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing’s Dick Brown says $8.5 million in cuts will lead to eliminating some 50 positions across the state and cutting annual mine safety inspections from six to four.
The cuts also mean less safety training for miners.
“We’re going to have to be judicious in how we approach this and make sure, number one, that miners are as safe as we can possibly make them and that we can effectively keep them safe,” Brown said.
Brown expects a cut to the number of mine safety rescue teams as well. However, Madisonville’s KCTCS Mine Rescue Team receives private funding from coal companies and won’t be impacted by the budget cut.
The U.S. Supreme Court is upholding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate coal pollution that crosses state lines.
Tuesday’s 6-2 decision is being called a major victory for the Obama administration’s environmental agenda, and will likely have a major impact on coal-fired power plants in Kentucky and other states.
The White House has put forth a set of new Clean Air Act regulations aimed at cutting pollution coming from coal-fired power plants. Coal industry advocates and many Republican lawmakers—including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell—have sharply criticized those regulations, describing them as government overreach and a “war on coal.”
The EPA is expected to unveil new climate control regulations in June to cut down on carbon pollution from coal plants. Kentucky gets an estimated 90 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, such as the Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County.
Many power suppliers have been anticipating increased scrutiny of coal pollution, and have been implemented changes at their plants to make their coal-fired operations more environmentally-friendly.
Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Scott Brooks told WKU Public Radio that Tuesday's Supreme Court decision has "no impact" on the utility's plans for the Paradise plant.
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.”
Congressman Hal Rogers and Governor Steve Beshear have announced the creation of a 15-member executive committee to lead their SOAR initiative. They held a joint press conference Monday at Hazard Community College to discuss the appointments. Rogers and the Governor will co-chair the panel, which will be composed of public officials and leaders from the private sector.
The congressman says the group will keep listening to ideas to boost the region’s economy and improve its quality of life.
One of the executive committee’s first tasks will be hiring a permanent director, which it hopes to do by September. SOAR stands for “Shaping Our Appalachian Region” and was created to help eastern Kentucky recover from the slump in the coal industry and the loss of thousands of jobs.
A bill that would allow coal-fired electric power plants in Kentucky to regulate their own carbon dioxide emissions has passed out of both chamber of the state legislature.
The bill has received massive bipartisan support.
House Bill 388 was filed by Rep. Jim Gooch, who has private interests in coal-related businesses. His bill, which permits coal power plants in Kentucky to regulate their own levels of CO2, one of the major contributors to climate change.
The bill passed in his chamber, as well as the Senate, by unanimous vote.
Hazard Sen. Brandon Smith says the bill is designed to help the coal industry endure a period of hardship due to federal environmental regulations.
“To see us wanting to jump in to these white papers and these new clean air standards they’re pushing down on us without at least fighting back or sending some sort of signal that the House and the Senate do not agree with this, we felt like it left these areas vulnerable," Smith said.
After collecting a year's worth of images of what they say are illegal discharges from one of Louisville Gas & Electric's coal ash ponds into the Ohio River, environmental groups say they plan to sue the company.
The Notice of Intent to sue filed by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice alleges that even though LG&E's permit allows “occasional” discharges directly into the Ohio River, the company has released water from its coal ash ponds into the river at least daily for the past five years.
"It’s obvious that they think they can operate with impunity," said Tom Pearce, a local Sierra Club organizer. "It’s the reason that we can’t eat fish out of our river. It’s the reason that our river is rates as one of the dirtiest rivers in the country. Is it any wonder?"
One of the nation's largest coal producers will pay more than $27 million in fines and spend another $200 million in a settlement with the federal government. Alpha Natural Resources was fined for violating water pollution limits in Kentucky and four other Appalachian states.
The settlement is for more than 6,000 violations between 2006 and last year. Some of the violations were at mines owned by other companies—like Massey Energy—that Alpha purchased. The EPA says the company’s Appalachian mines discharged large amounts of heavy metals directly into streams.
Alpha Senior Vice President Gene Kitts says the company has implemented advanced technology to control pollution at some of its coal mines.
"We feel the settlement is fair. We have systems already going into place," he said.
Kitts says the settlement payout won’t affect ongoing operations, or cause the company to close any mines or lay off any workers.
This is the largest penalty the EPA has ever levied under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act. After the settlement was announced, environmental groups sent out a statement criticizing the agency for letting the pollution happen in the first place.
A Western Kentucky coal miner is alleging several counts of workplace discrimination, after he reported safety problems at his job and was fired.
Four cases against Ken American Resources were filed last week.
Patrick Shemwell worked at a coal plant operated by Ken American in Muhlenberg County. He initially filed six discrimination complaints against his employer, saying he was retaliated against and ultimately fired for reporting safety problems at the prep plant.
The company settled, and Shemwell got his job back.
But according to the lawsuits filed last week, almost immediately, more problems arose. He reported unsafe conditions, was reassigned to equipment on which he had no training, received a death threat, and ultimately was fired again.
Since 1977, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act has protected miners from discrimination for reporting safety issues.
“My guess is that Patrick has filed more discrimination cases under that law than any other miner in the country during that time period," says Shemwell's lawyer, Tony Oppegard.
Kentucky’s coal industry shed more than 2,300 jobs last year, according to the latest numbers from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Most of those losses were in eastern Kentucky .
The final quarterly coal report from the Energy and Environment cabinet wraps up a dismal year for the industry. And for Eastern Kentucky, this marks the 10th straight quarter of declining coal employment.
Since 2007, Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 6,000 coal jobs, just under half. Coal production has dropped even more drastically. At the same time, production and employment have grown modestly in the western portion of the commonwealth.
A number of factors are behind the decline, including pollution controls that allow plants to burn higher sulfur coal, like that mined in western Kentucky and Illinois.