For Miners and Mine owners safety bills fire up tensions in coal country

Two mining bills designed to eliminate safety checks for the coal industry have reignited smoldering tensions between miners and mine owners.

In West Virginia, lawmakers advanced revisions to a controversial bill that originally would have eliminated state safety checks at coal mines.

A similar effort made its way through the Kentucky Legislature. In that case, four annual inspections required by law would be cut down to as few as one.  An on-site safety equipment check would be subbed out by a written “safety analysis” report based on conversations with miners.

Longtime safety experts say they are shocked at the scope of the proposals that will seemingly void violations that traditionally carry stiff monetary penalties.

“No one wants to be perceived as being against safety.”

- Chris Hamilton, West Virginia Coal Association

“It’s breathtaking in its scope,” said Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.

McAteer, an internationally recognized expert on mine safety, led a team that pushed for strengthening West Virginia’s mine safety efforts following the death of 29 miners after a coal dust explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal in 2010.

The Kentucky and West Virginia proposals come at a time when the industry is fighting for its survival. While they are both state deregulation proposals, both come as President Trump has pledged to take steps at the federal level to boost the beleaguered industry. 

Coal production hit its peak in 2008, but when President Obama came into office, he rolled out a series of regulations that he said were designed to protect America’s streams and waterways from the pollution caused by the mining operations. Those regulations, in concert with others, crippled the industry, leading to a loss of 50,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, according to a study by researchers at the Duke Nichols School of the Environment.

Despite their dwindling numbers, coal miners played a central role in the 2016 election.

Trump campaigned on a promise to end Obama’s “War on Coal” — and put out-of-work coal miners back on the job.

Trump traveled to West Virginia, donned a hard hat and promised jobs would return to an area whose very identity has been linked to the coal-mining industry for generations. And last month, Trump signed legislation undoing a regulation he called a “job-killing rule” that blocks coal-mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams.

But all of the goodwill came to a screeching halt a few weeks ago when the pair of bills was introduced in two of the country’s top coal-producing states.

In West Virginia, state Sen. Randy Smith, a Republican and Mattiki Coal Co. official, initially introduced a bill that would strip almost all coal mine safety enforcement by state inspectors. It was billed as a bridge between the fledgling industry and those working the coal mines, but received strong pushback by the pro-worker unions and organizations.

West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton expressed his skepticism of the first bill to Fox News.

“No one wants to be perceived as being against safety,” he said, adding that tweaks needed to be made before his organization would sign off.  

United Mine Workers of America spokesperson Ted Hapney also said the union objected to the original version of the bill that included “losing three inspections a year and reducing — well, actually taking away — the enforcement power of the agency.”

Following a burst of negative national attention and strong pushback, Smith made some concessions — but maintains his original bill made the impact he intended.

“The bill I initially introduced was designed to be shocking,” Smith told Fox News. “I wanted it to be enough to get people talking. I think too often, we don’t have serious conversations about mine safety until someone is hurt or killed. I was able to accomplish getting this discussion moving without either of those having to happen first.”

Smith’s new bill focuses on modernizing coal mining regulations. He pushes back against allegations his motives were more about profit than security.

“Sometimes it is hard to get groups to come together,” he told Fox News. “This bill forced us all to come to the table to have a real discussion about the issue.” 

  • DrArtaud

    Safety, this is a topic dear to my heart. I worked 8 years in union safety, and may be working in it today except for the caprice of 1 incoming local union president that was, in my opinion, worried more about his campaign 3 years after he took office (he was voted out after his 1st term) than the safety of his coworkers. In fact, the next incoming president, despite open animosity between him and I over the years, offered a position in union safety under his leadership. I declined for reasons too complex to discuss here, but I have always been grateful for his offer.

    There is a Wizard of Oz thing in working on Union Safety, to a degree much larger than experienced by individual union coworkers, you get to see behind the curtain for the actual things going on, not what it ostensibly seems to be. Incident investigations are enlightening, you get to talk to people before the meeting, people you trust, and find out their opinions are on what happened. You get to visit the area, to see what job was being done, and circumstances concerning same. Then you get to go to the incident investigation and see, at times, the company, in ways I’ve at times considered reprehensible, to CYA. Other times, with certain supervisors, things progressed, in my opinion, excellently and professionally.

    But, overall, I believe there are known hazards and deficiencies that both the company, and the workforce, are aware of. To emphasize such, please see the following article and video about the Sunshine Mine. Simple things such as the lack of training, and the lack of emergency respiratory products cost so many men their lives. They had re-breathers that were not functioning, that were rusted, and some that worked but who’s mouthpieces heated in operation, totally normal, but were abondoned by miners that thought the devices were malfunctioning. Miners were literally dropping over dead from Carbon Monoxide that would have been saved by the correct number of functioning re-breathers. These are the excesses uninspected mines will bring, you simply cannot trust manufacturers and industry not to cut safety to improve their bottom lines.

    They should maintain inspections of mines by the state. Mines can be profitable and as free as possible from accidents, incidents, and catastrophes, but outside inspections will almost assuredly be required to achieve that.

    Article: Mining Disasters - An Exhibition - 1972 Sunshine Mining Company Mining Disaster
    Kellogg, Idaho

    Video: You Are My Sunshine

    Published on Oct 5, 2021 Article: CDC - Mining Product: You Are My Sunshine You Are My Sunshine” tells the story of the Sunshine Mine Disaster of 1972, which cost the lives of 91 miners. The story is told through the eyes of 27 people who lived through it. The video explores what happened, what went wrong, and what were the lessons learned.

    Quite often, it’s the little things that get overlooked and cause major incidents.

    Video: Inferno: Dust Explosion at Imperial Sugar

    Video: Live Dust Explosion at FM Global’s Research Campus in West Glocester, Rhode Island

    Did you know that dust can explode? That is to say any organic material—wood, paper, rubber, fiber, food, tobacco, etc.—can create dust given the right conditions. In this controlled demonstration at FM Global’s one-of-a-kind Research Campus in West Glocester, RI, the five ingredients needed to cause dust to explode—air, fuel, heat, suspension and confinement—are provided to cause the explosion, or more appropriately, a partial volume deflagration. Here, one hard hat full (11 lbs. or 5 kg.) of coal dust is placed in a trough approximately 2/3 of the height of the enclosure, which measures 10 ft. wide x 12 ft. deep x 15 ft. high. A small charge was then introduced to disturb and suspend the dust followed by an ignition source (bottle rocket). Although you may not be able to totally eliminate combustible dust from your process or your facility, there are prevention measures you can take to reduce the frequency of dust fires and explosions. Likewise, control measures can reduce the severity of a fire or explosion. Together, these can help you reduce the likelihood of property damage and business interruption. Takeaway: If it didn’t start out as a rock, it can explode. For more information, visit FM Global at

    And last, some fun with science as relates to safety. Dust explosions, and gas incredible dense.

    Video: Dust Explosions - Cool Science Experiment

    Video: Anti-Helium - The Deep Voice Gas - DIY Sci

    Video: Sulfur Hexafluoride - Deep Voice Gas