Saturday, April 21, 2001

Mine oversight revamped

Agency's lawyer says safety violations will be pursued

The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Accusations of mine-safety violations will be prosecuted fairly and thoroughly, said Tony Oppegard, the new general counsel to the state Department of Mines and Minerals.

        Mr. Oppegard, attending the first meeting of the revised state Mining Board, said Thursday that the coal industry has no reason to fear him.

        “My primary responsibility is prosecuting the cases where there are alleged violations having to do with possible penalties,” Mr. Oppegard said in an interview after the meeting. “I think most industry people would say I'm fair.”

        Mr. Oppegard is a former eastern Kentucky legal aid lawyer who often represented miners in cases against coal companies. Until recently, he headed a federal investigation of last October's coal slurry spill in Martin County.

        Mr. Oppegard was appointed to the state position last week by Gov. Paul Patton, who also named the new members of the mining board.

        Mr. Patton issued an executive order revamping the mine-safety program in response to reports by the Courier-Journal last December that the former board ignored violations and imposed few penalties.

        The 2001 General Assembly passed a revised version of Mr. Patton's changes. The new eight-member board includes three members each representing the industry and labor, plus a citizen member and a non-voting member.

        At its first meeting, the board selected the citizen representative, Kenneth Fee, as chairman. Mr. Fee is a retired Mine Safety and Health Administration employee.

        At the next meeting April 30, coal industry representatives will present a proposal to change the rules concerning training requirements. The industry, facing a shortage of qualified miners, wants to train people in simulated but non-operational mines and use the hours toward fulfilling the 45-day requirement of being supervised in a functional mine.

        Board members did not comment on the proposal Thursday. But John Franklin, commissioner of the Department of Mines and Minerals, said he opposes the idea.

        “You don't get the necessary experience of the miner in a mock mine,” Mr. Franklin said. Mr. Franklin also urged the board to decide quickly on new mine-safety regulations and penalties. Mr. Oppegard echoed that view, saying the regulations must be in place to prosecute safety violations before a three-member Mine Safety Commission that Mr. Patton has yet to name.

        Some board members said they don't want to feel rushed, however. “I don't expect to come to the next meeting and vote on penalties without talking to the operators back home,” said board member Ben T. Spears.


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