Coal Experts Hope For Safer 2007 While Others Seeking Tougher Laws

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - This year Kentucky's coalfields were scarred by 16 deaths and the worst mining disaster in the state since 1989. Coal operators contributed to at least 13 of the fatalities by failing to meet safety standards, according to state and federal investigations.

A slew of new federal and state mine safety laws has both industry heads, lawmakers and safety experts casting a hopeful eye at 2007, though some plan to lobby for even tougher laws in 2007.

"The laws enacted at state and federal level were an improvement, but not wholly adequate," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate in Lexington.

Kentucky's 16 mining fatalities this year were the most since 1993, when there were 18. The deaths of five miners at an eastern Kentucky mine in May - just four months after the Sago disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 - bolstered a national push for more stringent mine safety regulations.

Nationwide, 47 coal miners were killed on the job this year, compared to 22 in 2005, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The main changes to Kentucky's mining laws, which went into effect July 12, require mine managers to report within 15 minutes a serious injury or fatality to state officials; have two air packs available for each miner; and conduct escape drills every 90 days, among other new rules.

The state also gained the power to fine mines in violation of the rules and increased the number of underground inspections from two to three annually.

Under a separate law that went into effect at the same time, the state suspends miners' licenses upon being notified of positive drug test results. The law requires coal companies to report positive results, but doesn't regulate the types of drug tests used or how often they are conducted.

The disasters also spurred federal legislation for miners to have more oxygen supplies and mine rescue teams to be within an hour's distance. Mine operators are also required to have new devices in place within three years to track and communicate with trapped miners.

Oppegard said the new laws place too much emphasis on rescue and not enough on prevention. He said more inspections are key to keeping miners safe - he's pushing for six inspections a year.

Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, agreed, saying he's fashioning a bill that would call for mines to undergo inspections at least once every quarter.

Yonts said issues including better training for miners and mandating the use of improved mine safety technology, including emergency air packs, should also be addressed.

Oppegard, who represents several widows who lost husbands in mining disasters, said his concerns arose from what happened to specific miners.

He and the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg intend to support legislation that would allow victims' families to observe accident investigation interviews and require pre-shift examinations at surface mines; two mine emergency technicians at every site; and all underground miners to carry methane detectors.

The latter stems from the May 20 blast at Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 that killed five miners. State investigators concluded that two of the victims accidentally ignited a methane leak.

A protective seal, which should have blocked out naturally occurring methane, was "poorly constructed" and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to the investigation report released by the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

The torch ignited the leaking methane May 20 as two miners were cutting away metal straps that intersected the top of the seal and were used as underground roof supports. They died in the blast; three others died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke
inhalation while trying to escape.

The report also said mine foreman Amon Brock and maintenance worker Jimmy Lee shouldn't have been allowed to use a torch at the site because ventilation current passed through the area on its way to the surface.

"Because of the Kentucky Darby disaster, we're going to try to push a state law that would require all miners to be equipped with methane detectors so miners have a means of protecting themselves," Oppegard said.

State mining officials, on the other hand, don't anticipate any changes to Kentucky's mining laws next year.

Natural Resources Commissioner Susan Bush said her department has hit a few kinks with the new legislation, especially backlogs from drug testing appeals, but nothing that warrants legislative changes.

As far as new legislation for 2007, "there's nothing specifically that the cabinet is proposing," Bush said. "We're fairly new in the beginning. We may hit a snag or two, but usually that can be addressed through changes in regulations or policy."

Bill Caylor, head of the Kentucky Coal Association, said there is no need for more laws.

"We're having a rash of fatalities," Caylor said. "New laws are not going to cure this. We need to enforce the laws we've got and train the miners with better work habits."

Caylor said regulators should put more weight on the "behavior modification" of miners - changing bad, unsafe habits to prevent future disasters.

Caylor said government inspectors visiting mines should observe and train more - and police less. He said inspectors typically enter mines looking for violations but don't spend enough time with miners to ensure that the mine is functioning properly.

However, Bush noted that Kentucky already has a program in which state mine safety analysts regularly enter underground mines to work one-on-one with miners and encourage safe practices. She said the program would expand in 2007 to include face time with mine foremen.

"When it comes to worker safety and mine safety, it's a continuing job," she said. "You can't rest on your laurels."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

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