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Here’s a frightening thought. The Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center says rising demand for coal may create more coalfield jobs, giving rural economies a much-needed boost.

That’s scary because government enforcement of mine safety can be so lax. Just read Courier-Journal reporter R.G. Dunlop’s update on the August 2005 deaths at Harlan County’s Stillhouse Mine No. 1. It shows that, nearly three years after Russell Cole and Brandon Wilder were killed in a roof fall, and 18 months after more lifethreatening violations were found by inspectors, criminal and civil investigations remain unresolved, fines are unpaid and the mine still operates.

You would think the federal mine safety effort would do better, especially since it’s one of the responsibilities of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose whole campaign for re-election is based on a claim that he can do more for Kentucky. They may be the Washington power couple, but they obviously don’t use that power effectively on behalf of safer mines.

As safety advocate Tony Oppegard points out, “there’s really no excuse” for taking three years to decide whether to file criminal charges in the Stillhouse case. It’s certainly not fair to the families and friends of the two dead miners if those responsible get off scot-free by citing prejudicial delays. It’s unfair to all working miners, since it sends a signal to owners, operators and foremen that nobody is going to crack down, even in clearly outrageous circumstances.

Mr. Dunlop’s careful review of both the original fatal accident and the mine’s subsequent safety record makes the failure of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s oversight all too clear. Yet MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin had the nerve to say, when pressed to explain, “I think that it’s the operator’s responsibility, more so than MSHA’s, to make sure they have a safe work environment.”

When operators fail, it’s clearly and legally MSHA’s responsibility to act.

Then there’s Johnny Greene, head of the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, who says of Stillhouse, “We’ve covered it pretty well.” Does Gov. Steve Beshear agree there’s “nothing glaring” about the Stillhouse situation? Is that the kind of mine safety effort he wants?

– The Courier-Journal, Louisville


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