“I think it’s a crisis right now,” said Tony Oppegard, former top lawyer for Kentucky’s Mine Safety and Licensing Office. “When we have 31 coal miners killed in less than five months, that’s a crisis and it needs to be treated as a crisis and dealt with. We need to stop this fiction that all coal operators are good guys and all you need to do is talk them and they’ll do the right thing, which is the cornerstone of the Bush administration philosophy. We need to crack down on operators instead of trying to babysit them.”

Talking has been going on since Jan. 2 when the West Virginia Sago Mine blew up, killing 12 miners.

On May 20, six men kissed their families goodbye, heading to the graveyard shift at Kentucky Darby #1 mine, in southeastern Kentucky’s Harlan County. At about 1 a.m. an explosion ripped through the mine, traveling 5,000 feet to the surface, puncturing oilcans located 200-300 feet from the entrance. Amon “Cotton” Brock, 51, and Jimmy D. Lee, 33, died in the blast. Roy Middleton, 35, George William Petra, 49, and Paris Thomas, 53, survived the explosion but suffocated in the lethal carbon monoxide-laced air. Only Paul Ledford was rescued.

“It makes me upset that he smothered to death,” Middleton’s widow, Mary, told reporters.

Miners at Darby #1 used the same self-rescue oxygen devices as the doomed Sago miners.

“I just think all miners everywhere need bigger oxygen supplies,” widow Tilda Thomas said. “The rescuers only have an hour supply, even if they work at all.” Tilda and Paris Thomas, married 29 years, expected their second grandchild in June. Anger blotted out Thomas’ tears as she recounted her husband’s pride in raising corn, beans, squash, onions and tomatoes. “He loved to garden,” she said. “He just kept telling the other day he was too old to do this stuff. I told him, ‘When you get to be 80 you’ll be too old.’ But that ain’t gonna happen, is it?”

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts offered the union’s assistance and expertise to the nonunion Darby #1 miners and their families. “This tragedy only compounds what has already been a horrific year in America’s coal mines,” he said. “There have now been 31 coal miners killed in the nation’s mines in 2006 and we are not yet even halfway through the year.” In 2005, 22 miners died at work. In Kentucky, eight died in all of 2005, but 10 have died in the first five months of 2006.

The talk continues, including by the coal companies at hearings in Charleston, W.Va., where they are not only resisting every effort by state and federal legislators to answer the life-and-death crisis but also want a break in rescue and health and safety standards.

Coal corporations want the media to go away. Testifying in Charleston, Elizabeth Chamberlin, general manager for safety at Consol Energy, Pennsylvania’s largest coal operator, criticized the “media reporting frenzy” that creates “angst among our families and negative press for the industry as a whole.”

The “negative press” indicates that, as at Sago, the owners of Darby #1, John North and Ralph Napier Sr., had been cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration 257 times since 2001. There were 10 violations this month alone. Of the total, 99 were classified as “‘serious and substantial,” including high levels of volatile coal dust which could have led to the explosion. Fines levied by MSHA total $27,651.

The 34 miners at Darby #1 produced 118,052 tons of coal and $3.4 million in profit for North and Napier in 2005.

Average household income in Harlan County is $18,665 per year, and 32.5 percent of the county’s 32,000 residents live below the poverty line.

An investigation is under way to determine the cause of the explosion and several Kentucky legislators have called for hearings. There is a glitch, though, for Kentucky state and federal lawmakers. Kentucky’s Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate whip, is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Her department oversees MSHA and has yet to respond to the “babysitting” charge.