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US coal mining deaths surge in 2017 after hitting record low

Jan. 2, 2018 at 10:05 p.m.


CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Coal mining deaths surged in the U.S. in 2017, one year after they hit a record low.

The nation's coal mines recorded 15 deaths last year, including eight in West Virginia. Kentucky had two deaths, and there were one each in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. In 2016 there were eight U.S. coal mine deaths.

West Virginia has led the nation in coal mining deaths in six of the past eight years. That includes 2010, when 29 miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia.

In September, President Donald Trump appointed retired coal company executive David Zatezalo as the new chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Most of the deaths this year occurred before his appointment. The Wheeling resident retired in 2014 as chairman of Rhino Resources.

Zatezalo was narrowly approved by the Senate in Nov-ember. His appointment was opposed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who said he was not convinced Zatezalo was suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.

Last month the Trump administration brought up for review standards implemented by Barack Obama's administration that lowered the allowable limits for miners' exposure to coal dust. MSHA indicated it is reconsidering rules meant to protect underground miners from breathing coal and rock dust — the cause of black lung — and diesel exhaust, which can cause cancer.

Eight coal mining deaths this year involved hauling vehicles and two others involved machinery. None were attributed to an explosion of gas or dust, which was to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The number of coal mining fatalities was under 20 for the fourth straight year after reaching exactly 20 in 2011, 2012 and 2013. By comparison, in 1966, the mining industry counted 233 deaths. A century ago, there were 2,226.

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