Did Miner Safety Improve Since Trump’s Inauguration?
In the wake of President Trump’s inauguration, the mining industry is witnessing rollbacks in mining safety regulations at the state level aimed at revitalizing the declining coal industry. While these policies are intended to make the price of coal more competitive, they may carry the unintended consequence of reducing overall safety in mining.
Increased Competitive Pricing
During his campaign, President Trump promised to revitalize the coal industry and bring back jobs to communities that have historically relied on mining as their primary economic driver. This was a response to the environmental regulations implemented by former president Obama during his administration. The coal industry lost over 50,000 jobs in four years due in part to increased constraints designed to prevent pollution from mining operations.
While reducing safety regulations may at first glance be alarming, the relaxation of rules may decrease coal prices as a whole. Mines that commit safety violations are subject to substantial fines and penalties, which can raise their operating costs. Routine inspections and safety compliance procedures are expensive and can lead to reductions in productivity.
Proponents argue a reduction in safety regulation lessens the costs of mining operations enough to make coal more competitive in the marketplace, which in turn may generate more mining jobs as more coal is needed to meet demand. Both West Virginia and Kentucky, two of the largest coal producing states in the nation, proposed legislation aimed at paring back mine safety penalties and safety requirements.
Decreased Safety Oversight
The reaction to reduced state regulation is mixed. At the federal level, mines are required to comply with strict safety regulations and pass rigorous inspections. The states proposing decreased control argue their policies are redundant with national policies. Opponents of the legislation fear that lowering the number of inspections and fines for penalties will encourage mines to operate unsafely and endanger workers.
The Senate’s confirmation of President Trump’s nominee to lead the Mining Health and Safety Association, also known as MSHA, has raised safety concerns as well. David Zatezalo, a former mining company executive, previously worked at Rhino Energy, which has received citations for safety violations over the years, including some for repeat safety offenses.
Underground mining is more dangerous when compared to surface mining as there is a higher potential for rock collapses, blasting accidents and combustion from methane gasses. Coal mines run underground along mineral seams to maximize the volume of material collected, raising the potential for accidents from rock instability or failure.
Federal regulations help prevent these accidents from occurring by requiring the stabilization of pathways with both passive or active rock reinforcements. Inspections include checks on existing reinforcements to ensure required regular maintenance is taking place to prevent collapses.
Lead by Example
Safety enforcement doesn’t need to be limited to the state and federal levels. Mining companies can develop more rigorous safety protocols and promote a safety culture to minimize injuries and fatalities. The Coon Cedar Grove mine in Raleigh, North Carolina is one example of a mining operation taking safety into its own hands. In 2016, Coon Cedar Grove won the Sentinels of Safety award presented by the National Mining Association.
The Sentinel of Safety award is a prestigious award given each year to mines with an impeccable safety record. To qualify, a mine must have at least 4,000 injury free hours. In 2016, the Coon Cedar Grove mine had over 48,000 injury-free hours. Representatives believe their exemplary safety record is due to their emphasis on safety procedures. Other mines can follow suit and implement rigorous safety standards that exceed federal and state requirements.
At the state level, the proposed decrease in mining regulation holds the potential to decrease safety for miners. The recent appointment of Zatezalos also raises concerns as to whether federal safety regulations will be lessened or lose their enforcement power. Whatever happens with the government’s role, individual mines can ensure the safety practices for their workers by developing and enforcing their own internal safety plans.