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Bill could jeopardize protection put in place 17 years ago after death of Harlan County miner

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Bill could jeopardize protection put in place 17 years ago after death of Harlan County miner

Feb 25, 2024 | 6:50 am ET
By Liam Niemeyer
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Bill could jeopardize protection put in place 17 years ago after death of Harlan County miner
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Rep. Bill Wesley, R-Ravenna, speaks before a committee about his bill to reduce the number of mine emergency technicians for smaller coal mines. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Liam Niemeyer)

A long-time mine safety advocate says a bill approved by a Kentucky House committee will put coal miners at risk by undoing a key protection in a 2007 law.

Tony Oppegard, a former mine inspector and attorney working nearly two decades representing coal miners and their families in wrongful death cases and other litigation, was a part of a team that wrote the 2007 mine bill that passed unanimously in both chambers. 

Among the protections in that law was a requirement that each work shift have on site two mine emergency technicians, instead of just one. METs are miners trained to provide emergency medical care and stabilize an injured miner’s condition.

Oppegard said the provision was spurred by the 2005 death of a Harlan County miner, David “Bud” Morris, who didn’t receive proper first aid to stop bleeding after a loaded coal hauler nearly amputated both of his legs.

House Bill 85, approved Thursday by the Kentucky House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, would lower the number of required METs back to just one for mines that have 15 or fewer miners on a shift. The bill received a second reading on the full House floor Friday, meaning it could be voted on by the full House during any future legislative day. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wesley, R-Ravenna, told the Lantern the bill is about “keeping the production going” at smaller coal mines. He said some smaller mines have had to shut down because they only had one MET. 

“I don’t think a whole shift should be sent home because somebody didn’t show up for work, that they were sick,” Wesley said.

But Oppegard asserted Wesley’s argument “doesn’t hold water” and characterized the bill as the latest effort in Kentucky to weaken the MET protection created in 2007.

“I’ve never heard of a guy just up and leaving unless he’s quitting his job,” said Oppegard, who advised the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration on safety policy during President Bill Clinton’s administration. “In my view, this bill jeopardizes miner safety.” 

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization representing coal miners in lawsuits over safety, and the Kentucky Resources Council, a nonprofit environmental legal group, have joined Oppegard in opposing the bill. 

Bill divides Republicans, Democrats in committee

When HB 85 passed Thursday, it was the second time this legislative session the bill had appeared before the House Natural Resources and Energy committee. The committee passed over voting on it earlier in February. Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, the chair of the committee, had said then that he wanted all stakeholders to be heard. 

The first time the bill appeared before the committee Rep. John Blanton, R-Salyersville, a co-sponsor, said that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet was “in agreement” with the lawmakers’ intent with the bill and that they worked on a changed version of HB 85 through a committee substitute. 

Blanton said the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry group, was neutral on the bill. The president for the association did not respond to a request for comment about the bill. 

When the new version of the bill again appeared before the committee Thursday, it kept the provision reducing the number of METs for smaller coal mining shifts. For coal mining shifts that had more than 15 workers but less than 51 workers on a shift, the bill would still require two METs. For only underground mines, the bill would keep a state requirement that an extra MET be on site for every additional 50 workers on a shift where there are already at least 50 workers. 

Gooch supported the bill in committee, saying he was one of the few lawmakers still around from when the original 2007 law was passed. He said given his background working as a coal miner and his family working in coal mines, there was “no way I could have done anything at that time” to “hinder their safety.” 

“Sometimes we pass bills when maybe we don’t really understand what the full implications of them are,” Gooch said, who voted for the 2007 law. 

Democrats on the committee either passed or voted against HB 85.

“There are other solutions to workforce shortages, such as raising pay or increasing benefits, rather than decreasing safety,” said Rep. Lindsey Burke, D-Lexington. 

Burke asked Blanton about opposition to the bill; Blanton responded that a couple of “individuals” had expressed concerns to him about the bill but that there had been “no opposition” to the bill otherwise. 

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which represents unionized coal miners across the country, has previously opposed bills that would reduce the required number of METs. 

UMWA President Cecil Roberts wrote a 2009 letter to the editor in part denouncing a Kentucky House bill that would have reduced the number of required METs from two to one for mine shifts with 18 or fewer workers. 

“Supporters of these attacks on miners’ safety say they are taking these steps to help small mine operators,” Roberts wrote then. “One thing you can say about these folks: At least they aren’t trying to hide the truth of their greed. They are willing to be quite upfront about their desire to put profits and production ahead of safety in Kentucky coal mines.” 

A UMWA spokesperson in an email said the union was aware of HB 85 but did not have a stance on the bill. The spokesperson did not respond to a question asking why the union had opposed similar legislation in the past but had not spoken out against the current bill. 

The Kentucky coal industry is drastically smaller compared to 2007, when the original mine safety law passed, as utilities have generally moved to lower-cost natural gas and renewables as power sources. In 2009, according to state data, 112.9 million tons of coal was mined in Kentucky. In 2022, 28.3 million tons of coal was mined.  In 2008, the state had 625 licensed coal mines. In 2023, there were 156 licensed coal mines. The last unionized Kentucky coal mine closed at the end of 2014.

Blanton said before the House committee Thursday the number of METs has decreased as “the mines have dwindled.”

After reviewing the new version of the HB 85, Oppegard said his core concern for miner safety still remained. 

“It doesn’t really solve the problem,” Oppegard said. “It doesn’t matter if you have nine employees working or you have 18 employees working. If you’re only requiring one MET to be underground at any time and that MET is injured, what are you gonna do?” 

When asked about Oppegard’s concerns, Wesley said that was Oppegard’s “opinion” and that he was still trying to keep mining safe. 

Rep. Bobby McCool, R-Van Lear, who voted for HB 85 in committee, told the Lantern there’s a federal requirement that some coal miners be trained in first aid, reducing the need for an extra MET. 

Oppegard refuted that argument, saying the training METs receive compared to basic first-aid training is much more specific and comprehensive.

“When you have underground mining injuries…they [frequently] require more than basic first aid because there’s big, heavy equipment underground,” Oppegard said. “A lot of times the injuries are devastating. It’s more than putting a bandaid on.” 

The training required to receive a state certification to become an MET includes at least 40 hours of training that includes learning about cardiac emergencies, muscular and skeletal injuries and bleeding and shock. A miner applying to be an MET also has to take an exam to receive a certification and receive retraining every year to maintain it. 

Courtney Rhoades, a Black Lung organizer for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said she wished more concern was placed on ensuring more miners were METs instead of reducing the required number. 

“If the issue is, like, ‘We don’t have enough of those [METs],’ then the immediate response should not be to decrease the number that are available at a mine but to encourage miners to go receive this training,” Rhoades said.

The death that spurred the MET protection

Oppegard points to the death of Morris, the Harlan County coal miner who died from a lack of medical care, as the reason why two METs are needed. 

Morris, then a 29-year-old shuttle car operator at a Harlan County underground mine, died from “near amputating injuries” to his legs when he was struck from behind by a loaded coal hauler, according to a federal mine fatality report, His left leg was severed “17 inches above the heel.” 

The mine emergency technician on site didn’t provide Morris with any first aid on site as he continued to bleed, only telling fellow miners to “get him out of here,” according to the federal report. A supervisor, who was supposed to receive first aid training but hadn’t at that point, wrapped cravat bandages around Morris’ knees, but no medical procedure was taken to stop the bleeding. 

Outside of the mine while waiting for an ambulance, miners had “applied two pieces of rope to each leg above the knee” in an attempt to stop the bleeding, according to the report.

“[N]o dressings were applied to the injury,” the report stated. “No pressure points were utilized. No tourniquets were applied to stop the bleeding.”

In the report, a paramedic who treated Morris said there would have been “a very different outcome” if basic first aid training had been implemented.

According to a Feb. 15, 2008 article from the Louisville Courier-Journal, the acting director of Kentucky’s mine safety office said the mine emergency technician who should have helped Morris had “panicked.” 

“When he saw Mr. Morris’ condition, he kind of lost it,” Johnny Greene told the newspaper.

Oppegard said Morris’ death is an example of why a backup MET is needed and that “there’s no justification for changing the law.” He said the widow of Morris came to testify in 2007 in favor of the mine safety law requiring two METs. 

“Bud bled to death,” Oppegard said. “That’s the whole purpose behind it, you know, to prevent this type of thing from happening again.”