…said Melissa Lee, widow of coal miner Jimmy Lee, 33 who died at a Harlan County, KY mine.  At least 17 other families are probably feeling the same way about the improperly constructed seals at the Sago and Darby coal mines where their loved ones perished. 

The Mine Safety and Health Admininstration (MSHA) issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on May 22, 2007 requiring stronger construction of permanent seals and more stringent maintenance and repair procedures (72 Fed Reg 28796.)  The agency determined that miners faced a “grave danger” of death and serious injury because of the prevalence of the inferior seal structures, and used its ETS authority in the Mine Act to address the problem.  As MSHA noted in the preamble to the ETS:

“It is reasonable to assume that if the emergency regulation had been in effect, all 17 of these miners’ lives might have been saved.”

MSHA is now going through the required rulemaking procedure to replace the emergency standard with a permanent one.  Yesterday, three women who were made widows by an explosion on May 20, 2006 at the Kentucky Darby mine testified in support of MSHA’s more protective seal standard.  Melissa Lee held aloft a photo of her husband saying, “this was my husband, and I do stress, was my husband (photo).  Priscilla Petra (photo), whose husband Bill, 49, also died in the Darby explosion urged MSHA:

“Don’t back down.  [You, MSHA] are finally beginning to realize that the system has failed miners.” 

Another Darby widow who spoke at the public hearing was Mary Middleton, wife of Roy Middleton, 35.

“Please do not weaken these rules.  I don’t want any more families to be experiencing what me and my girls are going through right now.”

The children left behind include a 7- and 14-year old from the Middleton family, a 3-, 4-, 13- and 14-year old from the Lee family, a 12- and 19-year old from the Petra family, and a young adult of Paris and Tilda Thomas.

The heart-wrenching testimony from the widows was punctuated by a videotape narrated by Lechter County coal miner Scott Howard.  The video was filmed on April 20 at the Cumberland River coal mine.  Lexington-Herald Leader reporter Jim Warren wrote:

“It showed several of the seals inside the mine, some of which had cracks in their supporting structures.  In some instances, water was seeping or spurting through the cracks from water trapped behind the seals. …[the coal miner] Howard said that the seals had been built in ‘the cheapest way to do it, the least man hours.'”

Mr. Howard departed the hearing before it ended because he needed to get to work.  The MSHA officials and 80 people in the audience were reminded by miners’ safety advocate and attorney, Tony Oppegard, that Scott Howard’s testimony is considered a “protected activity.”  Oppegard’s statement reinforced that Scott Howard is brave man for speaking out for workers’ safety. (Just in case it wasn’t obvious to everyone.)  In fact, it makes me wonder whether I would risk losing my livelihood to draw attention to safety problems?  Who wants to be stuck with a label like troublemaker,  attention-seeker, and rabble-rouser? 

With so few miners in the U.S. represented by a labor organization, the voices of front-line active coal miners is barely a whisper today.  God bless you Scott Howard.

Of course, there were coal operators and their trade association reps testifying at the hearing.  Bill Caylor of the Kentucky Coal Association stuck to his “blame the miners” script and claimed that the coal industry is protrayed unfairly by the media.  He made some ridiculous comment about hundreds of people dying every year from contaminated potato salad, but nobody is passing laws about that. [When the transcript is available, I’ll link to it.]   With respect to MSHA’s rule, the association opposed it for its alleged one-size-fits-all approach and the “emotional rush” in which it was developed. (Read Louisville-Courier Journal)

In an earlier AP story, the reporter wrote (July 10) about coal operators’ criticism of the rule, including its estimated $39.7 million cost.  An attorney representing the Pennsylvania Coal Association said MSHA was “creating ‘regulatory chaos’ by overreacting to the January 2006 explosion at the Sago mine.”  A July 12 AP story offered a platform for more critics, including operators’ claims that replacing seals is a dangerous, impractical job.  This story also repeated the estimated $39.7 pricetag.  By focusing on the near $40 million cost, the reporters only give readers half the story.

MSHA’s regulatory economic analysis for the rule (here) puts these costs in perspective.  The underground coal mining industry’s annual output for 2006 was $13.1 billion, and the cost of this rule is less than 0.3 percent of the industry’s revenue.  Moreover, the costs are not distributed equally among operators.  For an operator running a small mine (1-19 employees), for example, the annual cost is an estimated $11,172; for a large mine operator (more than 500 employees), the annual cost is an estimated $181,195. 

In 2006, 17 men died because of inadequate seals and another 30 or so men were injured because of them, plus dozens of families are struggling with the economic and emotional consequences of these failed seals. 

$39.7 million is a bargain.

Comments

  1. #1 pumphandle
    July 19, 2007

    I am the wife of a recently disabled, retired union underground coalminer in WV. My husband was injured in October 2004 and only received 2 workers compensation checks. He had to retire because we couldn’t make it on my income of $800. a month. His case is waiting to be heard by the WV Supreme Court since November 2006.

    All I can say is: Every mining law was written in miner’s blood!

    I’ll leave you with a quote from a family member of one of the Sago miners who didn’t make it.

    “Coal is more important than a life. That’s the bottom line here”
    …..Pam Campbell

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