Coal miner’s widow makes worker safety a campaign issue in KY congressional race

Melissa Lee’s life changed forever on May 20, 2006 when her husband Jimmy, 33 was killed, along with four other workers, in an explosion at the Kentucky Darby coal mine. Afterwards, she not only had four sons to raise without a dad, but as soon as Melissa started speaking up to demand mine safety improvements, she was harassed and threatened by defenders of coal mine operators. Four years since her husband’s death, Melissa is still speaking up, this time in a campaign ad running in Kentucky’s 6th district in support of Congressman Ben Chandler (D-KY). The incumbent is in a tight race with conservative Republican Andy Barr, whose vision statement says: “liberty and human progress are best served when government is limited and its powers dispersed.”

In the 30-second campaign ad, Melissa Lee explains the difference she sees in the two candidates.

“Chandler took on the coal operators tooth and nail. Andy Barr would be controlled by the coal operators. …When you ride in their pockets, that’s where you stay.”

Melissa Lee’s assessment of the candidates’ campaign coffers is backed-up by the candidates’ reports to the Federal Election Commission. When I searched the word “coal” in Democratic incumbent Ben Chandler’s report, the closest thing I found were donations from groups associated with the United Mine Workers Union. In contrast, Republican challenger Andy Barr’s report shows donations from individuals affiliated with KY River Coal, James River Coal, Pine Branch Coal, Manalapan Mining, etc. etc., and even a $1000 donation from Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship.

Candidate Barr appears to take part of his script from the Chamber of Commerce, which insists that regulations to protect health, safety and the environment create uncertainty for businesses and strangle the economy (see previous post). At a recent rally, Barr said:

“I think we need, frankly, to get the government out of the way. I think the reason why our economy has not recovered is … because government policies are creating too much uncertainty for the employers, who are actually in a position to hire the American people once again.”

Chandler, for comparison, recognizes the government’s role in ensuring fundamental protections like safety workplaces. Even before the May 2006 Kentucky Darby disaster, Chandler advocated:

“…enforcing the rules on the books, making violators pay their fines, and passing tough new laws to protect our miners. … Each day we fail to act, we are failing our miners who are simply trying to go to work and provide for their families.”

Chandler is a member of the fiscal conservative Blue Dog Coalition, but that hasn’t stopped him from endorsing HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act, and HR 5663, the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act. These bills not only address coal mine safety, but would make much-needed changes to the law governing OSHA, including adjusting OSHA penalties for inflation. (A maximum civil penalty for a serious violation is only about $4,300 in 1991 dollars, the last time the agency’s penalty structure was amended by Congress. EPA has authority to issue a $25,000 per day penalty against a firm violating the Clean Air Act.)

Melissa Lee predicts more workers will be killed on the job if strong worker safety advocates are not elected to Congress. She wants voters to recognize the choice they have to select a representative who will work to keep in-check the forces that put short-term profits ahead of workers’ lives, limbs and health.

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