By Mike Reicher
December 3, 2018 - As Tennessee’s coal mining industry continues its decades long decline, the state teams responsible for rescuing trapped miners could be disbanded.
The Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Mine Safety Unit has been unable to staff a rescue team within two hours of all of the state’s underground mines (for coal and other materials), despite a state law requiring it, according to a recent audit by the Comptroller’s Office.
That’s because the department relied on workers from two coal mines in northeast Tennessee, one of which closed and the other downsized this year.
While Tennessee never had a large presence in the coal industry, it has seen losses like other states due to decreasing demand. In 2002 there were 23 coal mines in Tennessee producing 3.2 million tons a year, while in 2017 just six mines produced 431,000 tons, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The state rescue teams are staffed primarily by mine workers at private companies who “volunteer” to serve on the state rescue squad but are paid for their service. Coal miners are preferred by the state because they’re required by federal law to undergo more rescue training than those at mines for metals and other minerals.
Mine operators, however, are now refusing to let their employees staff the state rescue teams, the state mine safety director told auditors. That has led to a gap in the safety net.
“Without a state mine rescue team nearby, there is increased risk of injuries and loss of life,” the auditors wrote.
But each privately owned mine has its own rescue team, so auditors suggested that state legislators reconsider the requirement for state-led rescue squads.
“This is an issue legislators are aware of and several have said it may be a topic they need to address during the upcoming legislative session,” Chris Cannon, spokesman for the department, said in an email.