In wake of mine disaster, mourning turns to outrage on safety issues

PHILIPPI, W.Va. — “I just don’t have words. No words,” said a woman leaving funeral services for David Lewis, 28, one of the 12 miners killed Jan. 2 in the Sago Mine. “But I’ll say this much. We will do what we have to, whatever it takes, to protect our miners. Whatever we have to.”

Cars lined both sides of the narrow road in front of the Stemple and Forman Funeral Home here Jan. 8, as over 130 family, friends, miners, community residents and representatives from the United Mine Workers of America paid their respects and comforted the family.

There was no representative from the International Coal Group (ICG), owners of the Sago Mine.

The mine, which generated $15.7 million for ICG through the third quarter of 2005, also generated 208 safety violations, including a dozen roof falls.

A note scribbled by one of the trapped miners, later found at the site, shows that the men survived for at least 10 hours before toxic gas is believed to have killed them.

In 2001, Bush’s Mine Safety and Health Administration dumped a proposal to require breathing devices that would enable underground miners to survive such toxic gases.

It took 12 hours after the Sago mine blast before rescue teams began searching for the trapped miners, delayed by lack of a required backup team.

By law, every coal mine in the U.S. must have at least two rescue crews. But as of 2004 “there was actually just one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide,” Ken Ward Jr. reports in the Charleston Gazette. Between 2000 and 2002, the number of rescue teams dropped by 10 percent nationally.

Noting that 90 percent of coal company federal campaign contributions went to the GOP in 2004, labor health and safety expert Jordan Barab writes in his Confined Space blog, “The fact is Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years.” Meanwhile, “penalties for OSHA and MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received by the Sago Mine last year was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. It’s hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything.”

Since the Sago tragedy, the UMWA in Alabama has filed suit to force that state to fully fund mine inspections and protect 3,198 miners, union and nonunion. “All we want them to do is inspect our mines in their entirety to provide safety to the miners,” said Darryl Dewberry, UMWA vice president.

Billionaire Wilbur Ross Jr. owns ICG. He hired Ben Hatfield, formerly of Massey Energy, the largest coal operator in West Virginia, to run the diversified corporation’s mining division. Massey is best known as championing mountaintop strip mining and breaking the UMWA. ICG representatives have repeatedly claimed that they did not gain control of Sago until November 2005. “Much of the bad history was beyond our reach and our ability to control,” said Hatfield.

But the Charleston Gazette revealed that Ross controlled 47 percent of Sago and its parent company in 2001, making him the largest shareholder.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Machin, whose uncle died in the 1968 Farmington, W.Va., mine explosion, appointed an outspoken industry and Bush administration critic, former MSHA head Davitt McAteer, to oversee the state’s investigation of the Sago disaster. McAteer promised to deliver a report by July 1.

West Virginia’s Sen. Robert Byrd will hold a Senate hearing in Washington on Jan. 19.

The press was cordoned off here as families filed out of the funeral home, cheeks tear-streaked, heads high, heading to their cars to bury the father of three daughters, a man who provided food to a struggling single mom neighbor, and who loved the outdoors life of rural West Virginia.

It was a snapshot of pain, strength, solidarity and determination repeated 12 times Jan. 8-10 as the mining families buried their dead.

“We have no protection for our workers,” John Bennett, the son of Jim Bennett, one of those killed in the nonunion Sago Mine, said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

“My dad would come home at night and tell me how unsafe the mine was. We need to get the United Mine Workers back in these coal mines to protect [against] these safety violations, to protect the workers. Now they got to work in unsafe conditions. That’s why we got 12 dead men laying in the morgue right now, along with my father.”

Working in some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, miners and their families have a long history of tenacious struggle for safe working conditions and for their union. The words of legendary miners’ organizer Mother Jones continue to reverberate: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”



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