The so-called “war on coal” is now over, according to a statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently praised the Trump administration for its work with the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw from the Obama-era “Clean Power Plant” rule that limited greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. The move away from higher regulations has been praised as one that could jump-start domestic coal production.
But any lowering of regulatory measures is a double-edged sword. While jobs have been on the slow climb, in 2017 accidental deaths in coal mines doubled from the previous year, according to the most recently available statistics from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
A more than 100 percent jump in fatalities — from seven last year to 14 in 2017 — does not correspond to the 3.7 percent increase in available industry jobs over last year.
By comparison, in 2015, the number of mining jobs was 69,000 — 30 percent more than today — but the number of deaths among those jobs topped off at 12.
How did we get here?
The previous downward trend in mining fatalities was due in part to processes and procedures put in place by MSHA under President Obama’s pick Joe Main, the agency’s longest-serving chief, who touted record low fatalities by the end of his term last year since he was unanimously voted in at the start of Obama’s first term.
But under Trump, the agency’s reach to issue citations for problematic mine management has been drastically reduced, suggesting recent death trends might be indicative of a bigger problem in how the agency is treating the conditions that could lead to preventable fatalities. Now, rather than issuing official citations, the agency primarily relies on extra training sessions for operators at facilities found operating against code.
Canary in the coal mine.
In recent months, the Senate confirmed David Zatezalo as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Zatezalo is the former CEO of Kentucky-based Rhino Resources, a coal company with a notoriously dangerous track record of subpar safety conditions. Under Zatezalo’s leadership, the company had previously been hit with two “pattern of violations” citations from MSHA. Too many of these types of violations result in closure, enforced by the very agency Zatezalo now leads.
Zatezalo comes to the MSHA leadership position after it was left open for most of the year, and following the vote of members of Congress, including the three West Virginia U.S. House members, to cut the agency’s operating budget.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in July that the president isn’t lowering safety standards, but that the administration’s “main focus” is on “creating and growing jobs” in coal country.
Letter of the law.
“The record low fatal injury rate among coal miners in recent years is because of strong enforcement of the law,” Celeste Monforton, who served on a governor-appointed panel that investigated West Virginia’s 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners, told CBS news this summer. “It would be a disgrace to see that trend reversed.”
United Mine Workers of America issued a statement acknowledging that “safety suggestions” — like those issued by the agency this summer to help combat accidental deaths specifically among newer miners — do not carry the same weight as previous administrations’ use of hard and fast citations and fines.
“To believe that an operator will comply with the law on their own free will is contrary to historical experience and naive on MSHA’s part,” the letter said.
Others have suggested that this uptick is directly the result of less stringent follow-up on the implementation of these “suggestions” since Trump’s taking office. “I do not believe that the fatalities that we have had to date have been due to a lack of enforcement,” Zatezalo said at the hearing in October. “But I don’t have all the details on that.”
Yet, as thousands of miners look for work, the cocktail of an abundant labor market and the push for more efficient production means that there is less incentive to enforce “safety suggestions.”
The trend of replacing hard and fast guidelines with cost-cutting lax practices does not just show at the national level. Over the summer, Kentucky lawmakers cut back on mine safety inspections and replaced them with coaching sessions on miners’ safety habits, while West Virginia replaced them with “compliance visits and education.”
“In West Virginia we are painfully familiar with the human toll that accompanies a mine accident. I have comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines. Strong leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration is non-negotiable,” one of the coal industry’s biggest boosters in Washington, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said in a September statement explaining his opposition to Zatezalo’s nomination.
Lovey Cooper (@loveycooper) is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, and reports on the intersection of politics and culture. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Vice, Rewire News and Education Week.