Friday, July 4, 2014

Grimes tries to turn coal conversation to mine safety

By Al Cross
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

In her bid to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell, Alison Lundergan Grimes has been trying to change the conversation from coal, where President Obama took it last month when he proposed limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. But to keep the votes of Democrats in the state's two coalfields, Grimes has to confront the issue, and this week she tried a new strategy: coal-mine safety.

Grimes laid a wreath at a memorial to the 38 miners
killed in the 1970 Hurricane Creek Mine disaster.
(Lexington Herald-Leader photo by John Flavell)
At the site of a Leslie County disaster that killed 38 miners almost 45 years ago, Grimes told Morgan Lentes of WYMT-TV in Hazard that miners "need to have somebody in Washington D.C. that has their back instead of the big coal corporations," which support McConnell's campaigns. The senator's spokespeople defended his mine-safety record.

In a news release, Grimes accused McConnell of doing "next to nothing to enhance miners’ safety and health," and said she would work as senator to see that the Mine Safety and Health Administration "ensures that mines are as safe as modern technology will allow, deploys a sufficient number of mine inspectors, encourages supervisorial support for inspectors who enforce safety laws, and delivers effective corrective action for multiple, serious or repeated violations. In addition, MSHA and its parent Department of Labor must act aggressively to protect whistle-blowing employees who report safety problems and to back up inspectors who are subjected to intimidation by mine operators."

"Grimes said she supports two bills proposed by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller," Sam Youngman and Matt Young of the Lexington Herald-Leader report. "One would strengthen whistleblower protections for miners and increase criminal penalties for safety violations. Another would make it easier for coal miners to get black lung benefits and create grants for research into black lung."

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Grimes's release also said coal dust in mines must be "within recognized safe limits," and "monitored frequently and accurately.  Violations must lead to effective corrective measures." In April, the Labor Department moved to reduce the dust limit by 25 percent; the coal industry has asked a federal appeals court to review the change.

The release Grimes also said McConnell "turned a blind eye" when the George W. Bush administration "cut more than 100 inspectors from MSHA, which reduced inspections." McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, was labor secretary at the time. The release didn't mention that point, but cited a 2007 Washington Monthly article that did.

McConnell's campaign replied that he supported the last major mine-safety law, which followed disasters in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2006, and his official spokesman, Robert Steurer, told Youngman that the law hasn't been in effect long enough to consider additional legislation.

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore told WYMT that the senator "fights every day to protect Kentucky's miners from Grimes' liberal allies who need her vote to completely destroy the coal industry."

Grimes linked the coal issues with another major issue in the race, Obamacare. "Grimes also said McConnell's repeated calls for repeal of the federal health-care law [which] made it easier for widowers of miners with black lung to receive benefits," Youngman writes. "McConnell 'has called for a full repeal of these pro-coal miner protections,' said Grimes, in her most specific embrace of the controversial law, which she has said should be fixed instead of repealed."

The United Mine Workers of America is highly concerned about mine safety but is one of the few labor unions that declined to endorse Obama for re-election in 2012, because of his anti-coal policies. The union's Kentucky political committee of is scheduled to meet in Lexington Sept. 18-19 to hear from the Senate candidates and consider an endorsement. The union represents miners at only one Kentucky mine, in the western coalfield, and at some Kentucky processing facilities, but has many retired members in the state.

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