Coal mining deaths rise after record low in 2016
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Coal mining deaths in the U.S. nearly doubled last year, after a record low in 2016, according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

There were 15 people killed in coal mining jobs in 2017 versus eight in 2016.

Despite the increase, mining deaths have been steadily declining for several years. Since the turn of the century, MSHA's fatality reports peaked at 42 fatalities in 2001 and generally declined since. Fatalities have not exceeded 20 since an explosion at a West Virginia mine killed 38 people in 2010.

The rise comes as President Trump has sold himself and his administration as champions for coal, promising a revival for the industry. In September, the president nominated, and the senate barely passed, David Zatezalo as the new chief of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Zatezalo is a former coal industry executive.

In surface mining, trucks haul dirt and stones, called overburden, from one part to another as other haul trucks move the coal found directly below.

A Charleston-Gazette Mail analysis of regulatory filings turned up three mining deaths in which Zatezalo was a manager or general manager at the time of the accident. Zatezalo said during confirmation hearings that he replaced local managers in those cases and plans to make safety a priority.

"Inspections in the mines in the United States are a necessity," he said, calling it one of the primary tasks of the agency he now leads.

Most of last year's deaths came before Zatezalo took leadership at MSHA in September.

A spokesperson for Zatezalo released a new statement on Wednesday, after the report was released.

"President Trump is strongly committed to the health and safety of America’s miners. At MSHA, our focus is on ensuring that every miner is able to return safely to their loved ones at the end of every shift," Zatezalo said in the statement. "To ensure the health and safety of miners, MSHA will continue to vigorously emphasize safety enforcement, technology, education and training, and compliance and technical assistance."

A plume of steam billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H., Jan. 20, 2015. President Donald Trump may abandon U.S. pledges to reduce carbon emissions, but global economic realities ensure he is unlikely to reverse the accelerating push to adopt cleaner forms of energy.

MSHA has previously credited low mining fatality numbers to fewer people working in the field and tougher safety enforcement.

At least seven of the mining fatalities in 2017 involved workers with one year or less experience at the mine. According to agency data, miners with less than 12 months experience at a mine or in a particular job have a higher injury rate than more experienced miners.

In June, MSHA began an evaluation and training program focused on those hired or in their current role for less than 12 months.

In 2011, about 92,000 miners were actively working in the field, according to MSHA, compared with about 52,000 in 2016. Employment numbers for 2017 are not yet available.