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Kentucky House approves bill to reduce emergency-trained workers in small coal mines

FILE - The Kentucky Capitol is seen, Jan. 14, 2020, in Frankfort, Ky. The Kentucky House voted Monday, March 11, 2024, to allow the state's smallest coal mining operations to reduce the number of miners with emergency medical training to be assigned for each underground shift. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House voted Monday to allow the state's smallest coal mining operations to reduce the number of miners with emergency medical training assigned for each underground shift.

In a state once known as a coal producing powerhouse, supporters said the measure is needed to help keep the smallest mining operations in business amid the industry's downturn. The bill's critics warned it would roll back an important safeguard enacted years ago following a Kentucky mining fatality.

“It truly troubles me to think that we could potentially be trading the safety of our coal mining families for what appears to be a nominal financial benefit, if anything at all,” said Democratic state Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty, who represents a coal-producing region in eastern Kentucky.

The measure — House Bill 85 — passed the House on a 75-18 vote and goes to the Senate next. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.

The bill would cut in half the number of mine emergency technicians required to work when a shift has 15 or fewer miners. Two METs are currently required per shift, but the bill would reduce it to one.

Republican state Rep. Bill Wesley said his bill is motivated by instances when entire shifts were shut down and miners sent home because not enough METs showed up for work.

“Nobody got paid," Wesley said during the House debate. "Everyone was sent home. And I think that this is a needed bill to help all the coal miners.”

Tackett Laferty said she spoke to a miner with more than 20 years of experience who recalled just one instance when a mine was shut down due to a lack of METs. He told her the entire shift was rescheduled a few days later to make up for the lost production, she said.

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety attorney in Kentucky, has said the proposal would weaken safety standards.

“I think it’s shortsighted and there’s an easy solution," he said in a recent phone interview. "The easy solution is mine operators can require more of their miners to be METs as a condition of employment.”

It would be an inexpensive option for coal operators, since METs generally are paid an extra $1 per hour, Oppegard said. With two METs per shift, the cost would be an extra $16 per shift, he said.

“That’s pennies for a coal company,” he said.

METs are miners trained to provide emergency medical care and to stabilize an injured miner’s condition. Oppegard said the requirement for two METs per shift was part of a larger safety measure passed by Kentucky lawmakers in 2007, and it stemmed from the 2005 death of an eastern Kentucky miner.

A federal inspection report said the miner was hit by a coal hauler at a Harlan County mine. He suffered “near-amputating injuries.” The report said his injuries were made worse because he was not given first aid before he was taken above ground to an ambulance. The report said workers in the mine had not been trained in first aid.

Tackett Laferty said the safeguard of having multiple METs on site isn't what’s causing mines to close.

The bill's supporters include Republican Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., who represents a coal region in western Kentucky. Gooch comes from a coal mining family and previously worked in mines himself. He said the bill is a recognition of the realities for some operators with as few as 10 employees working a shift.

“I don’t think it’s any threat to the safety of our miners,” he said.

Under the bill, two METs would still be required for shifts with more than 15 but fewer than 51 miners.

Coal employment numbers in Kentucky have fallen sharply over the last decade as demand for coal has declined.

Kentucky employed about 4,700 mine workers at the end of 2023, including about 2,700 in underground mines, compared to nearly 12,000 total miners in 2013, according to numbers provided by the state.

Cheaper natural gas prices and tougher environmental regulations have prompted electric providers to move away from buying coal.

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Lovan reported from Louisville, Ky.