Lawmakers in Kentucky passed a measure that cuts the state’s mine safety agency’s budget by $5 million and cuts staffing by 38 percent.
The Courier-Journal reported that the cuts will go into effect later this summer when the agency is cut to 88 employees from 142.
The work done previously by 69 mine inspectors, eight safety instructors and 31 safety analysts will be combined and performed by 64 employees with the new title of "mine safety specialist," The Courier-Journal reported.
Kentucky Natural Resources Commissioner Steve Hohmann released the first details of a retrenchment plan prompted by the General Assembly's action in April to cut the mine safety program's budget from nearly $15 million a year proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear to $10 million.
In addition to the funding and staffing cuts the General Assembly cut annual mine inspections of each mine from six to four.
Hohmann said he still did not know if the cuts mean some current workers will be laid off. "We're exhausting every effort to place everybody" in a vacant state job, he said.
"Overall, our goal in executing this reorganization was to continue to meet the mandates we have under state law to protect the health and safety of coal miners," Hohmann said.
Hohmann said the smaller agency will be able to perform the four required annual inspections of each mine. But, repeating concerns voiced by Beshear last spring, he said state regulators are worried.
"It concerns the cabinet and the department very much that we are going to have a reduced presence in the coal mines and what impact that could have on the safety of our miners," Hohmann said.
But a coalfield lawmaker who voted for the cuts said the sharp drop in coal employment and production in recent years as well as the fact that the federal government also inspects mines means no more risk to Kentucky miners.
"With mines shutting down, you don't need that many inspectors," said Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard. And Smith said the four state inspections, combined with four annual MSHA inspections, will be "plenty."
Under the new plan, Hohmann said the former Office of Mine Safety and Licensing has been abolished and replaced with the Division of Mine Safety.
The new, smaller agency will have the same responsibilities: to train and license miners, license mines, issue permits for specific mining methods, inspect mines, investigate mining accidents and conduct rescue operations.
Field offices will remain in Pikeville, Martin, Hazard, Harlan, Barbourville and Madisonville. The Frankfort administrative staff will be cut from 13 to nine, Hohmann said. But three of the nine in Frankfort will be the chief mine safety specialists (one for accident investigation, one for rescue, one for electrical inspections) and will spend much of their time in the coalfields, he said.