As term ends, mine safety chief hopeful for safer coal mines

By Dylan Lovan, Associated Press

The nation's coal mines are headed for another record low year in workplace deaths, and the outgoing federal mine safety chief said he's hopeful that mining companies will work with the incoming Trump administration to continue that progress.

In a Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, Joe Main, left, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, and workers at the Gibson North mine observe an automated miner machine in Princeton, Ind. The nation's coal mines are headed for another record low year in workplace deaths, and Main,the outgoing federal mine safety chief, said he's hopeful that mining companies will work with the incoming Trump administration to continue that progress. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The nation's coal mines are headed for another record low year in workplace deaths, and the outgoing federal mine safety chief said he's hopeful that mining companies will work with the incoming Trump administration to continue that progress.

Joe Main as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration has presided over some of the safest years in coal mining history while enacting tighter rules on breathable dust underground. His seven-year term also has seen an industry decline, with several major corporations filing bankruptcy and coal mine closings throughout Appalachia.

So far in 2016, there have been nine fatalities at the nation's coal mines, which would be a record low, improving on a record 12 fatalities last year and 16 in 2014.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Main expressed some concerns regarding miner safety heading into the next administration, which promises to boost coal production.

"Anybody that sits in this chair has to think about every decision they make, how is this going to impact the miners out there," Main said. "And if you start from that equation and try to factor anything out on behalf of miners and their safety ... you're apt to make mistakes out there that's going to be adverse to miner safety."

Main, an assistant secretary in the Labor Department, warned against loosening new dust rules, which reduced the amount of allowable coal dust in mines as a method to curbing black lung disease. The rule also mandated personal air monitors for each miner.

"I think you have to look a lot of miners in the eye if you start messing with that in any way, and explain to them why you're taking these protections away," Main said, pointing out that about 76,000 miners have died of black lung disease. "... You can start slipping back to that again."

Some mine operators and the National Mining Association, an industry advocacy group, unsuccessfully sued to block the tighter dust regulations.

The National Mining Association has argued throughout Main's tenure that the government should do more than enact new regulations and conduct inspections as a means to improving safety.

"If focusing on only these two aspects would get us to zero fatalities and accidents we should have accomplished these goals long before today," said Bruce Watzman, who handles public policy for The National Mining Association, an industry group.

"Our hope is that the next assistant secretary (of the Labor Department) will look beyond the regulations to drive continued improvement," Watzman said in an email message.

Main declined to comment on President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Labor Secretary, fast food restaurant CEO Joseph Puzder, who will oversee the mine safety agency.

Along with the dust rule, Main also oversaw increased aggressive inspections after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 workers. The agency said citations issued for the most serious mine violations has declined from 19,431 in 2010 to 8,981 so far in 2016, a drop of about 54 percent.

Main's last day in office is January 20.

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