While profits soar, two more miners die

PITTSBURGH — The coal that miners extract at the Miller Brothers strip mine in Breathitt County, Ky., keeps the lights on in the chambers of Congress. On May 23, the Senate passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER). That same day Steven Bryant, 23, went to work at Miller Brothers and died. The next day, Todd Upton, 34, died from head injuries underground at International Coal Group’s Sycamore #2 mine in Harrison County, W.Va. Both mines are nonunion.

As the first five months of 2006 come to a close, 34 coal miners will not cheer their kids on at Little League, hike, hunt or fish the stunning hills surrounding their small communities, slice a fresh tomato from their garden or walk down the aisle to get married. They died at work. Those five months were more deadly for U.S. miners than all of 2005.

The Senate passed the MINER act as anger roiled the Appalachian coal fields following the January Sago disaster which killed 12 miners. In almost record time, senators from all 50 states approved the measure introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), upgrading mine safety for the first time since 1977. It hikes the fines against companies for safety violations from a maximum of $60,000 to $220,000, requires that rescue teams be based within an hour’s travel time of mines, and gives coal corporations three years to install modern communication and tracking devices. The House is debating the measure.

At a press conference announcing the Senate action, United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts urged the House to pass the bill immediately. “This carnage must stop. The MINER act, as passed by the Senate, will help do that,” he said.

Roberts said the union is seeking an injunction in federal district court to require the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to immediately conduct random testing of oxygen-generating, self-contained self-rescuers (SCSR). The suit asks the court to order increased training for miners, including using the SCSR devices underground instead of just in a classroom.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) wants to reduce the timeframe to introduce communication devices from three years to 15 months, provide at least two days of emergency oxygen and boost fines against companies defying federal safety regulations. He presented a letter signed by three Sago families supporting his changes.

“Safety has to be put before production and it’s got to be put before profits,” said Deborah Hamner, whose husband of 32 years, George Hamner, died at Sago.

Joe Main, former UMWA safety director and now a union consultant, told The Associated Press that elected officials need to look at forced overtime as well. Corporations are so focused on profits that they are working miners longer instead of hiring to increase production. According to the Kentucky Department for Workforce Development, the average workweek for the state’s estimated 14,800 coal miners is 49.5 hours.

Coal has skyrocketed to $64 a ton on the spot market. At ICG’s Sycamore mine where Todd Upton died, 34 miners produced 69,000 tons, or $4.4 million worth of coal, in 2005. In 2006, ICG projects an increase to 250,000 tons, or $16 million worth, increasing profits by 400 percent.