The state’s two-year, $19 billion budget is expected to be $456 million short by June 30. Budget cuts to make up the shortfall will prevent inspectors from examining each state mine six times next year as required by the 2007 law, officials said. The old rules required each mine — 201 underground and 216 at the surface — to be inspected three times a year.
“That is utterly ridiculous,” said Melissa Lee, whose husband, Jimmy Lee, was killed in a 2006 underground mine explosion in Kentucky. “If anything it’s saying to the miners and their families, ‘Go in at your own risk, work at your own risk, take your life into your own hands.’”
Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters said the state will have to wait to hire the inspectors needed to increase the number of checks. Despite the safety concerns for the state’s 17,000 miners, officials said they have few other options.
“It is a matter of things falling off the table at this point in time,” Peters said at a briefing Wednesday.
Rep. Brent Yonts, who sponsored the law requiring more inspections, said they help workers focus on mine safety. The law followed 2006 explosions that killed 12 men at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five at the Kentucky Darby mine. Both blasts were fueled by methane in abandoned, sealed areas of the mines.
“If we don’t pay attention to safety issues and people get lax in their attention to detail on safety, then death follows,” Yonts said.
Officials in other states, including Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, said they don’t plan to cut inspections despite similar budget problems.
Though there’s a hiring freeze in Pennsylvania, the state has approval to fill two open jobs conducting quarterly inspections of bituminous coal mines, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Rathbun said. The inspections are seen as a health and safety issue and a sweeping new mine safety law takes effect Jan. 1.
For the federal government, completing mandatory safety inspections of every one of the nation’s mines required hiring 360 safety inspectors and spending $10 million on overtime. Federal inspectors announced last week that all the nation’s mines received their mandatory safety reviews for the first time ever. The federal inspections — four per year at underground mines, two per year at surface mines — supplement those required by states.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said his state may be better served by concentrating on mines with poor safety records.
“Some of the large, good mines don’t need inspections as often as some mines that have a history of safety violations,” Caylor said. “They ought to maximize their resources by looking at mines that don’t have good safety records.”
United Mine Workers of America representative Steve Earle said the cuts would break a promise Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear made to coal miners to fully fund the state’s mine inspection program.
“If these mines are not inspected six times as year, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Earle said. “Miners will be killed and miners will be injured at an alarming rate.”
Lee, the wife of the miner killed in the Kentucky explosion, said the state should find other places to save.
“There’s no reason at all to scrimp on mine safety,” said Lee, who now lives in Tennessee. “There are too many men out there making money for their companies, and they’re putting their lives on the line for someone to say they don’t have to be inspected.”