Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes unveiled a plan Thursday to improve mine safety and address black lung diseases—an offensive campaign move on the Kentucky coal issue.
Her plan also takes Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to task for vowing to repeal a key provision in the Affordable Care Act that helps coal miners receive benefits for black lung disease.
Grimes is calling for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to meet specific priorities, such as deploying a sufficient number of inspectors and support for regulators to enforce mine safety laws.
Grimes’ plan also seeks to improve technology for company crews to have better rescue and communication tools in the case of a mining accident or disaster.
"Underground refuges must be equipped with sufficient supplies of food, water and fresh air to sustain trapped miners until help arrives," Grimes said in a news release Thursday.
"And there must be full communication with the families of affected miners as rescue operations and accident investigations proceed."
There have been 23 fatal mining accidents in Kentucky over the the past five years, according to the state's energy and environment cabinet.
The most recent was in August 2013 when a coal miner Lenny D. Gilliam, who lived in Virginia, died after an accident at the Huff Creek Mine in Harlan County, Ky.
As WFPL's Erica Peterson reported, Huff Creek Mine had racked up nearly 200 violations over the past three years alone. Under current federal rules, the Harlan County mine didn't meet enough standards to be put on a "pattern of violations" status.
Grimes' plan specifically calls for creating a corrective action plan to address multiple violations in order to flag dangerous coal mines.
Grimes Tags McConnell for Opposing Black Lung Benefits
For the past month, Grimes has been pummeled by McConnell's campaign and his allies on coal.
Critics pounced after reports surfaced that she failed to bring up the issue during a recent Washington, D.C., fundraiser with Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, who once said coal makes residents sick.
The Grimes campaign said she spoke with Reid about the issue privately. Opponents still used it as an opportunity to again argue Grimes will be more beholden to President Obama's agenda than the state's coal industry.
"Alison Grimes just got caught in a big lie," a narrator said in a June 17 TV ad by Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a conservative PAC backing McConnell. "Before a Washington fundraiser with anti-coal Senate boss Harry Reid, Grimes insisted she’d fight for Kentucky coal.Turns out she lied, Grimes didn’t mention coal, not one word."
Grimes reiterated she has condemned the Obama administration for "misguided" environmental policies, but she added protections for coal miners' safety and health are just as important.
For instance, the Grimes plan supports the Black Lung Health Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, which seeks to make it easier for miners to apply for and collect health benefits.
This also marks the first time Grimes has embraced part of the Affordable Care Act on the campaign trail, which she point out contains a key benefit for Kentucky miners.
Provisions allow for those who have worked in coal mines for the past 15 years with lung disease symptoms to get easier access to health care coverage. In 2010, the United Mine Workers of America praised the amendment—added by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia—as "vital, needed improvements" to the bill in efforts to address black lung disease.
Grimes said McConnell's vow to dismantle the health care overhaul would hurt the more than 1,000 Kentucky workers who have reported suffering from black lung disease, which comes from inhaling coal dust.
"Mitch McConnell has called for a full repeal of these pro-coal miner protections," said Grimes. "While I have expressed my disagreement with some parts of the broader healthcare bill, which I will work to fix, I certainly support the Byrd amendments."
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore defended the Republican senator's record on mine safety, pointing out he co-sponsored legislation to improve mine safety in 2006.
"Perhaps someone should remind Alison that it was Sen. McConnell who co-sponsored and passed the MINER Act to ensure the health and safety of America's coal miners, and that it is Sen. McConnell who fights every day to protect Kentucky's miners from Grimes' liberal allies who need her vote to completely destroy the coal industry," Moore said in a statement.