Regulations: Not enough? Too many?

Published 6:01 am Saturday, April 21, 2018

As a person who has served as a college president in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, toured three coal mines including one where the coal was so low I had to duck walk, and completed a college course in coal mining, I am somewhat familiar with the industry. I also have been named an honorary coal miner, and I became a Kentucky Colonel via a nomination from the United Mine Workers of America.

I’ve stayed connected with many from this area and am alert to what I read about the industry in the four newspapers I read each week as well as magazines to which I subscribe.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the deregulations in a variety of arenas since President Trump took office. As a professional in education, I’ve always been aware of regulations, mandates, and the funding required to carry them out as legislators, eager to have their names attached to bills as proof of their abilities, seem to be always looking for something to regulate.

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Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist, was just appointed to the number two position at the EPA. Will revitalization of the coal industry be on his agenda and what if further deregulation results in a spike in coal-mining deaths?

I knew Trump was big on deregulation and made promises to voters in the nation’s coal fields, and that concerned me. Why? I have interviewed widows from the Scotia mining disaster and have read the findings when the investigators worked to assess blame: coal operators who put profits ahead of safety issues. At the site now of this disaster- and I visit it annually- a company is engaged in recovering coal through a process called mountain top removal. I have observed the rocks and sludge move down the mountains and settle in the Cumberland River, raising the river bed and making houses along the river more prone to flooding, including the two houses on the property where my grandmother moved with her four teenage children after her husband died and where my relatives still live.

One of the widows of the Scotia disaster is Geraldine King who says, “My baby girl, Victoria, was 2 years old when her daddy, Roy Edward ‘Big Sack’ McKnight, was killed at Scotia on March 9, 1976. Our son, Davis, was 5 years old.

“What good are laws if no one enforces them? The coal operators take advantage of someone who’s got to make a living. Cut a corner here; cut a corner there. Make a few bucks.”

King has boxes of materials that were written about the Scotia disaster and reports, “The more I go through them, the more upset I get. It is anger. It makes me so d*** mad.”

So what is the status of the coal industry in 2018? Too many regulations? Too few?

There was a surge in deaths in 2017 to 15 from a low of 8 the year before. Was deregulation after Trump took office a factor?

The New York Times reported on Feb. 22, 2018, that “Federal investigators this month identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung cases ever officially recorded,” and “nearly a quarter of the miners with complicated black lung disease had been on the job fewer than 20 years.” This phenomenon strikes a personal chord as my beloved father-in-law, Roy Blevins, struggled to breathe for ten years and then died from this disease.

Whether coal is competitive depends on the quality of the coal, the cost of mining, and the cost of transporting it to the buyer. Harlan County coal is bituminous (not as desirable as anthracite), is difficult to mine, and must be transported via truck or rail.

Environmental concerns have reduced the demand for coal as the numerous alternative sources of energy have moved to replace coal. The April 2018 issue of Smithsonian reports that in 2016, there were 50,000 coal industry employees, 102,500 wind-industry employees, and 260,000 solar-industry employees. The chart used in the article “Capture the Sun, Harness the Wind” shows a sharp decline in the projection of coal for the generation of electricity in 2020-2023 and then a leveling off with a slight decline. Renewable sources, on the other hand, show a sharp upward trajectory.

For a century Harlan County coal has provided severance tax revenue to help operate the Commonwealth, and it’s high time that Mitch MCConnell used his tremendous influence in Washington to do more than talk a good game about coal and instead invest significant dollars in southeastern Kentucky and other coal-producing areas to bring about stability and recovery and eventual prosperity to parts of the country that are suffering because of lack of jobs.

King says, “We’re seeing the last of coal. Our mountains are beautiful, but how much tourism does it take to support a family? Tourism alone won’t do it.”

The words “collaboration,” “cooperation,” creative problem solving,” leadership at many levels” and “government support” come into play here.

Many years ago I read Whitesburg attorney Harry Caudill’s 1963 Night Comes to the Cumberlands. In the preface to Caudill’s book Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, writes that the problems are the result of “a failure of men.” I concur and believe that men and women can turn things around. It will take leadership, planning, hard work, sacrifice, and political pressure applied the likes of which the area has never before seen- pressure on Frankfort and Washington.

Meanwhile, on March 28, 2018, at the Revelation Energy Panther Mine in Harlan County , Kentucky, Hubert “Bubby” Grubbs, 29, was repairing a conveyor belt when the conveyor started unexpectedly, causing him fatal injuries. Numerous non-compliance citations were issued by investigators.

Of Grubbs’ death Kentucky Governor Bevins tweeted, “It is our fervent prayer that his family and friends will find comfort… .”

Respondents to the tweet demonstrated no small amount of disdain:

“Very sad and almost exactly one year after you signed a bill cutting mine safety regulations.”

“Hubert Grubbs, who you failed to name, might be still alive if you hadn’t reduced the number of mandatory mine safety inspection last year.”

“He would still be alive if this state had a competent leader who would invest in education and solar energy.”

As we examine the issues the coal fields present, we know that tariffs, subsidies, regulations, supply chain, ecological movements and politics all play roles.

I didn’t know Hubert Grubbs, but I know he was working one mile underground, and the company for which he worked is within view of Southeast Kentucky Community College where I served as president. I, however, see his innocent face in his obituary, a 29 year-old-man who had worked in coal mining since he was 19 years old.

I talked with his father-in-law, Tom Napier, who told me that Grubbs was “looking for a job on the surface, knowing that if anything ever happened underground where it took an hour and a half from the portal to get to his work site, it would be hard to get to him.”

According to Napier, Grubbs was in love with the mountain, was a deer hunter and a four-wheeler. He had just bought a new four-wheeler and was eager to break it in. After his funeral service, a cavalcade of his friend on four-wheelers and motor cycles escorted his body to the grave site.

I feel sure Grubbs was thinking about riding that new four-wheeler when he said goodbye to his wife, Mandie, on March 28 when he headed off to work.

Contact Dr. Blevins at