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Environment

Ending State Mine Inspections Wouldn't Save Kentucky Any Money

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Flickr/Creative Commons/John Karwoski
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A bill under consideration in the Kentucky General Assembly that would end state coal mine safety inspections isn’t being pursued for financial reasons, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Senate Bill 297 would change Kentucky law to eliminate the provision that requires state coal mine inspections, in addition to federal inspections. Although the bill’s sponsor — Sen. Chris Girdler — didn’t return requests for comment, WFPL reported Monday that Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said one of the motivations for the bill was financial in the face of stiff state budget cuts.

But on Tuesday, Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura said the bill is, in fact, cost-neutral for the state. It would take current mine inspectors — there are 62 of them — and turn them into “mine safety analysts.”

“The bill ends the duplication of mine inspections that now exists with the efforts of both state inspectors and federal inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration,” Mura said in an email. “It also allows the state Division of Mine Safety to reinstitute the Mine Safety Analyst Program that is a proven and effective way to reduce mine accidents through a behavior-based safety analysis.”

So, the bill wouldn’t save Kentucky any money. And on the face of it, it also wouldn’t save the coal industry any money, because it’s very rare for state inspectors to issue fines for violations.

But one former state mine inspector says Kentucky’s inspections play a very different role for mine safety than their federal counterparts.

Tracy Stumbo worked for the state for 29 years, first as a mine inspector, then a safety analyst, and finally as Kentucky’s chief accident investigator. He retired in 2013.

Fines vs. Action

Stumbo said MSHA issues fines, but unless the violations are extremely serious, inspectors don’t shut the mine down or require the violation be fixed immediately. And the fines are sometimes not very effective, when coal companies appeal for years and often avoid paying the whole amount.

“See if you write these citations, yeah, they don’t pay them, so at the end of it, there’s not much there,” Stumbo said.

But while Kentucky inspectors don’t often issue fines, they do require violations be fixed immediately.

“And if it’s going to be a problem, we actually take [the equipment] out of service until they fix [the violations],” Stumbo added. “This has to be fixed. And most of it has to be fixed immediately. And we can keep them down much easier, and of course that knocks them out of production.”

Familiarity

Stumbo argued that state mine inspectors are often more familiar with the coal mines than their federal counterparts. It’s not a perfect analogy, but he said federal and state inspectors are a little bit like the state and county police.

“And just like the county police, [Kentucky state inspectors] know more of what’s going on in the county than the state police do, because they live there all the time,” Stumbo said. “And generally speaking, our state inspectors are from the areas where they inspect the mines.”

In some cases, they’ve worked in the same mines they’re inspecting, too, he added.

Inspectors vs. Safety Analysts

Stumbo used to be a mine safety analyst in the same program that the Energy and Environment Cabinet is contemplating resurrecting. But he said there were key differences between the duties of an inspector and an analyst.

Inspectors could spend several days in a mine, looking over everything. Stumbo said as an analyst, his work was by design much less thorough.

“We worked at the face itself, where most all of the people are,” he said. “We didn’t go in the belt lines or the returns.”

Just like the state and federal mine inspections, Stumbo said the analysts were meant to complement, not substitute, the work done by inspectors.

More Eyes

Stumbo said the more people who are inspecting coal mines, the more likely they are to find health or safety problems that need to be fixed. Sometimes, these are issues that mine foremen and coal miners might not notice themselves because they’re in the mine every day.

“If you live in your house, you may get used to coming in the front door and seeing something out of place; you get complacent with your own home,” Stumbo said. “And miners do the same thing, whereas an inspector can come in and he can see something, ‘wow this is really out of line here.’”

And in a coal mine, Stumbo said, more eyes increase the likelihood that major problems will be caught and fixed.

“It only takes one person missing something very important one day to cause a catastrophic accident, as we’ve seen before,” he said.

Ultimately, Stumbo said his understanding of the bill is that it wouldn’t be good for mine safety.

“And I think [ending state mine inspections] would surely lessen the eyes that’s looking at [a mine],” he said. “Mines would clearly be more dangerous.”

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