(Bloomberg) -- Ray Hatfield Jr. was six months into his latest coal job when he was crushed to death in a Kentucky mine.
Hatfield, a 23-year industry veteran, was cleaning a conveyor belt that shuttled coal to the surface of the Appalachian mine on the morning of Jan. 26. When his clothing got caught, he was pulled into the machine and killed. Hatfield, 42, left behind a wife and three kids.
The fatality was preventable, investigators from the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration determined, citing a host of safety violations at the facility near Pikeville.
“Hatfield was working in a deathtrap, with not even minimal safety requirements being met," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Kentucky-based attorney who represents mining families and has studied the government’s report and been in touch with the Hatfield family’s attorney. “This is what a lot of Appalachian coal miners have to put up with.”
Ten other U.S. coal workers have died on the job this year, marking the first uptick in fatalities since 2010. The deaths come at a time when the Trump administration is promising to roll back federal regulations that it says were part of a "war on coal." There have already been more fatalities so far this year than in all of 2016, as U.S. production of the fossil fuel rises.
Industry leaders say the rash of fatalities is a result of increased mining activity. They point out that almost all of the coal deaths -- including Hatfield’s -- have involved workers who’d been employed at their current mine for less than a year. Overall U.S. coal output is up 15 percent through the end of July compared with a year ago amid higher prices for natural gas -- a competing power plant fuel -- and increased demand from China.
In June, there were 50,800 U.S. coal miners, up 3.7 percent from the same time in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“You hear the president and others in his administration talk about there being too many regulations, promoting coal jobs and bringing back coal, but never a peep about making sure those jobs are safe,’’ said Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at Texas State University in San Marcos, who during the Clinton administration served as policy adviser to MSHA’s director.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters, speaking aboard Air Force One as Donald Trump flew to West Virginia Thursday night for a rally, said the president isn’t lowering safety standards and that the administration’s "main focus" is on "creating and growing jobs" in coal country.
West Virginia has had a challenging year in coal safety, leading the nation with five fatalities, the most there since 2014. There have also been two deaths in Kentucky and one each in Alabama, Montana, Pennsylvania and Colorado. The victims ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s and had on average more than a decade’s worth of experience, according to fatality reports from MSHA, which oversees the sector.
“They may be experienced miners, but they’re coming into different job settings from when they worked previously,” said Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association’s senior vice president for regulatory affairs. "No two mines are exactly alike. Even if it’s the same company, there are differences in the geology and the environment.”
MSHA in June started a new program to stem the increase in fatalities, in which inspectors visit mines to help operators improve training for people new to their jobs. That sort of good-cop approach is favored by industry leaders including Robert E. Murray, chief executive officer of St. Clairsville, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., who in an interview earlier this year called for a "radical" change at MSHA. He criticized the agency for having too many inspectors handing out violations at a time when the coal industry had been shrinking. Murray hasn’t experienced a mine fatality this year.
“Safety is, and always has been, the absolute highest priority at Murray Energy," Murray said in an emailed statement this week. "There is no pound of coal that is worth getting hurt over.’’
On the other hand, the United Mine Workers of America has blasted MSHA’s latest program for being too industry-friendly. The union would rather see federal mine inspectors punishing coal operators found violating safety laws. In a letter last month, union President Cecil Roberts pointed out that the agency’s staffers in the compliance assistance program can’t even issue citations if they see problems.
In an email, MSHA said its inspectors address any "imminent danger hazard" and require that it be corrected. It also said it has issued 24,377 violations through June 30, up 26 percent from a year ago.
The last time coal fatalities spiked was in 2010, when an explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers. In the aftermath, MSHA came under scrutiny from lawmakers for being too soft on chronically misbehaving coal companies. In response, the agency initiated a campaign of "inspection blitzes" designed to keep mine operators from covering up violations.
Since then, there have been no "mine disasters," which MSHA deems to be an accident that kills five or more. There had been four during the George W. Bush presidency. Instead, coal fatalities kept falling -- reaching an all-time low of eight last year.
MSHA still carries out the inspection blitzes. For the third year in a row, none of America’s 13,000 mines -- coal and other types -- were found to be bad enough to face its toughest enforcement, according to a statement this week. Some problem mines had corrected recurring issues with MSHA’s help. "Those efforts are paying off,” Patricia W. Silvey, MSHA’s deputy assistant secretary for operations, said.
Oppegard, the miners’ attorney, is skeptical. Even today, a certain segment of the coal industry is run by "complete outlaws" who cut corners on safety, he said. Oppegard fears that such operators will create mining conditions that could lead to the next Upper Big Branch disaster.
“They don’t care for the health and safety of the people that work for them,” Oppegard said. “All they care about is getting more coal out as fast as they can.”