Whitesburg KY

Here’s four for the road

Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back
No more no more no more no more
Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.

We can’t help it. We just can’t get the words to Percy Mayfield’s classic 1961 R&B hit — immortalized by Ray Charles — out of our head as we contemplate four particularly bad bills that have cropped up during the current legislative session in Frankfort. Here they are:

Next, Half as Many First-Aid Kits: House Bill 119, sponsored by Rep. Keith Hall (D-Phelps), would have cut in half the number of trained mine emergency technicians (METs) required at mines employing fewer than 18 people. Currently the law requires two medics on each shift, which provides a measure of assurance that injured coal miners will get skilled help. Hall sought to cut the required number to one, increasing the chances that an accident — especially if it involves multiple miners — would end tragically.

Hall defended his Russian Roulette approach to mine safety on economic grounds, arguing that miners lose income if a small mine has to shut down for a shift when a MET doesn’t show up. The solution to that problem, we suggest, is to train more miners as medics (the state provides free training). But Hall’s real concern seemed to be less about miners’ income than his own. He owns coal reserves and receives royalties from three mines, each of which (surprise) employs fewer than 18 miners. No production, no royalties for Keith. Hello? Can you say “conflict of interest”?

This might be funny if lives weren’t at stake. But the two-MET rule is on the books today because miner Bud Morris, gravely injured in a 2005 accident in a Harlan County mine, bled to death after the only MET around — the mine owner — panicked and failed to help him. All mine safety laws are built on previous failures, and all have the goal of improving the odds that men and women doing some of the world’s most dangerous work can get home safely. Reducing their onthe job protection doesn’t improve those odds. At press time, we learned that Hall has decided not to call for a floor vote on his bill. That’s good. But it needs to hit the road — permanently.

Death Is Not That Harmful: Under current law, every mine in Kentucky must be fully inspected a t least six times each y ear. Senate Bill 170 would have effectively slashed that requirement by permitting the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing to substitute other safetyrelated activities, such as training mine rescue teams, for actual inspections. The bill ‘s sponsor, Sen. T om Jensen (R-London), who represents five eastern Kentucky counties and chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, detected no conflict. “We think you can do both at the same time,” he said last week. “I don’t see it as being that harmful.”

Wait — play that tape again. It’s “not that harmful” to cut back on inspections by devoting those resources to something else? When did “not that harmful” become the gold standard for mine safety, and who decided that “training” and “inspecting” are synonyms? Please. Calling a pig a robin won’t make it fly. As Lexington mine-safety advocate Tony Oppegard points out, the bill as written could result in mines going uninspected for months if not years. There was good news this week when Jensen, flummoxed by the opposition his bill stirred up, announced that he was dropping his bill — at least for now. But it, too, needs to hit the road and never come back no more no more no more no more.

Methane? What Methane? Senate Bill 64, also sponsored by Tom Jensen, would allow mine owners to shut off ventilation fans when the mine isn’t working. Sure, times are hard and we’re all looking for ways to cut our electricity bills, but there’s a problem. When a fan is down, methane can build up — and methane is often present even in supposedly non-gassy mines. When methane reaches a concentration of 5 to 15 percent of the mine atmosphere, it’s extremely explosive. Switching a fan back on before the start of a production shift doesn’t ensure that the mine will be safe. Methane ignitions have killed thousands of miners, including those lost in the Sago and Kentucky Darby disasters in 2006. Kentucky’s ventilation requirement is actually stronger than the federal mine-safety law, and the state should be proud of that. Instead, lawmakers seem inclined to ignore lessons learned less than three years ago. Senate Bill 64 needs to get its kicks on Route 66.

Just Move the Picnic Tables: Finally, let’s talk about yet another bad bill being peddled by hyperactive Sen. Tom Jensen. As we reported last week, Senate Bill 138 would open up state parks and other state-owned lands to oil and gas drilling. Jensen’s none-toosubtle sweetener is that income from the leasing fees and royalties would go to the state agencies for their own use. That will no doubt appeal to agencies — including state universities — that face funding crunches during a deep recession. But it’s a smokescreen. Dangling the lure of extra income in front of cash-starved state agencies is no substitute for responsible budgeting; it invites agencies to trash the very places they’re charged with protecting; and the bill is being rammed through despite the absence of any studies supporting the need for it. Not to worry, Jensen says: Drilling on state lands will have to be done in the “best interest of the Commonwealth.” And who gets to decide what that is? Not you, not me, it’s the guy with the drill rig behind that tree. Senate Bill 138 needs to hit the road — and if necessary collide with a veto by Gov. Steve Beshear.

So that’s why we can’t get that old Ray Charles number out of our head this week. We just hope the governor is hearing it too.

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