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Kentucky's Mine Safety Law "Under Attack"

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Critics are complaining that three
measures pending in the Kentucky legislature could undo key
provisions of the state's mine safety law.

One would sharply reduce inspections performed by the Kentucky
Office of Mine Safety and Licensing. Another would would cut the
number of medics on duty at small mines. And the other would strike
a provision that requires ventilation fans to run continuously in
underground mines to prevent the buildup of explosive gases.

"It this were to pass, it would be signing the death warrants
of hundreds of coal miners across this state," charged United Mine
Workers of America representative Steve Earle. "If they get away
with this, God help the Kentucky coal miners."

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor challenged
Earle's contention, saying the measures are intended to help small
mining companies survive in a tough economic climate and pose no
added dangers for miners.

"This is a smoke screen for the union," Caylor said. "They
have no concern for safety. Their main concern is to put the small
operator out of business, because it's nearly impossible to
unionize a small mine."

Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard said Kentucky's mine safety
law is clearly "under attack" only two years after it was
enacted.

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee on Wednesday
approved the measure that Oppegard said would change a provision of
the state's mine safety act that requires at least six state
inspections per year of every coal mine.

Under the proposal, Oppegard said, mines could effectively go an
entire year without a single inspection.

State Sen. Tom Jensen, chairman of the natural resources
committee, said Wednesday the measure still would require
inspectors to visit mines six times a year, but the visits could
involve other activities like mine rescue training.

"We think you can do both at the same time," Jensen said
Wednesday. "I don't see it as being that harmful."

Oppegard, a Lexington attorney who formerly worked for state and
federal mine regulatory agencies, said the measure "guts" the
state's mine safety law by removing one of its most important
provisions.

Earle joined Oppegard in Frankfort on Wednesday to rail against
changes to the state's mine safety law, which was enacted following
a series of underground disasters.

In all, 16 miners were killed on the job in Kentucky in 2006.
Five of the deaths were from a single Harlan County underground
mine explosion. Nationwide, 73 miners were killed on the job that
year, including 12 in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West
Virginia.

Congress and coal state legislatures reacted by revamping mine
safety laws in 2007.

Earle said he fears the coal industry now is pressing lawmakers
to undo certain provisions of those laws.

"That is so absolutely false," Caylor said. "It's utterly ridiculous."

A measure sponsored by Jensen would lift a requirement that
ventilation fans be kept running continuously, a provision included
in the 2007 mine safety reforms. Such fans keep air flowing through
underground mines to prevent methane gas from accumulating to
explosive levels.

The proposal passed the Senate last month 37-0 and is awaiting
in the House along with another controversial proposal sponsored by
state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps. That measure calls for reducing
the number of medics required at small mines from two to one. It
has been approved by a House committee and is awaiting a vote on
the House floor.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Wednesday he's
not sure when the medic proposal will be called for a floor vote.
Hall said he doesn't intend to push for a vote until after he has
discussed the measure with opponents, including the United Mine
Workers.

Earle called on Gov. Steve Beshear to intervene on behalf of
miners and ask lawmakers to shelve the proposals, or, if they were
to pass, to veto them.

"Gov. Beshear promised us when he was campaigning that he was
committed to make sure that our coal miners have a safe place to
work," Earle said. "We want him to step up to the plate."

Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton said the governor is indeed
committed to mine safety and is monitoring the situation in the
legislature.
---
The measures are Senate Bill 64, Senate Bill 170, House Bill
119.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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