“He said are you refusing to do work,” Charles Scott Howard explained, “I said I’m refusing to give my life for a lump of coal, and they fired me.”
Charles Scott Howard is a coal miner from Kentucky with somewhat of a rebellious reputation. His story even carried into Australia where an artist wrote a song
about the whistle-blower.
In 1989 the miner, who goes by his middle name Scott, says he was black balled from the industry in Harlan County Kentucky. He says it happened after he refused to operate an unsafe machine underground. He settled a lawsuit out of court in that case.
In 2007 Howard was working for Cumberland River Coal Company, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, one of the largest mining companies in the country.
“I just seen people being mistreated forced to do things whether they liked it or not," he said. "You know it’s sometimes out of fear for their safety or you know either afraid they’d get hurt or killed I was just the type that couldn’t keep my mouth shut I just had to open my mouth.”
And that he did. Howard traveled to a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration public hearing
and exercised his whistle-blower right by showing video of the mine seals at Cumberland River at the time. The tape showed seals so worn that water was spurting from cracks.
Mine seals are generally made of cinder-blocks with a thick coating to create a seamless surface. The structures are meant to keep certain atmospheres within mines separated from one another to prevent an explosion or an inundation of water.
Seals separate active parts of the mine from inactive sections no longer in use. Investigators pointed to faulty seals as a major cause of the Sago and Darby disasters.
Howard says he pointed out the seals to his supervisor but it was never fixed.
“I told them I said, Are ya’ll reading the pre-shift books I do,” he shared a conversation, “They said yeah. I said well evidently you’re not cause you’re not doing nothing about what I’m writing down.They said what are ou talking about and I told them about the seals.”
The next day MSHA issued the company a citation. A little more than a week later, Howard was given a written warning. Cumberland said his use of a video camera underground created unsafe conditions.
So, with the help of his attorney Tony Oppegard, Howard ended up filing a civil suit against Cumberland.
“He’s got more guts then any coal miner I’ve ever met," Oppegard said, "and I’ve been doing mine safety cases for over 30 years he’s utterly unique as an American coal miner.”
The battle blazed on, as Howard wasn’t willing to compromise when it came to his safety, and Oppegard had his back at every turn.
In 2008, Howard was working a different job at this same mine, driving what’s commonly called a ‘ram car’, used to haul coal from the mine face to the feeder to be transported out of the mine. But he said he wouldn’t hesitate to park the car when he noticed that the ventilation curtains were not hung properly.
“I would get off my car and go hang them curtains and them boys would keep running,” he said. “I would say well I’ll stop that. So I’d either pull up behind the miner and get out of mine to go hang them or sometimes I’d pull up on that feeder where nobody could dump no coal. That’s where they’d get pretty mad."
"I told them I said if you want coal you better give me some air.”
Investigations into the Upper Big Branch Disaster uncovered poor ventilation as one of many things that went wrong on April 5, 2010 when 29 men died in an explosion.
Ventilation is important in underground mines to keep fresh air in and push flammable methane out.
The investigations also uncovered a unique culture. Family members of the victims testified at a federal hearing that their loved ones were afraid to speak up about poor working conditions.
After all, Howard was speaking up for his rights and winning, but he says it’s tough to be black balled.
After several other disagreements with the company, Howard was fired in May of 2011. MSHA agreed that he had been discharged illegally. Howard then filed for a ‘temporary reinstatement.’ It’s a status meant to help miners regain their employment while their legal case is being litigated.
“Because mining occurs often times in remote areas of the country where there aren’t other job opportunities outside of mining industry," Oppegard explained, "Congress in its wisdom said miners can’t afford even short periods of unemployment there for we have to find a way to get them back to work if they are fired for making safety complaints.”
The judge ordered Cumberland River to put him back to work until his case was decided. The coal company agreed to the terms, and asked Howard to agree to stay away from mine property. Howard was to be paid for 60 hours per week.
Oppegard says there have been several issues with the details of the check such as wrong 401k contributions, checks arriving late and just last month, a pay cut.
By refusing to work in unsafe conditions, Howard says he knew he was taking a chance, but his faith gives him the strength to follow through.
“It’s a hard choice to say I want to give up my livelihood to open my mouth,” he said. “The main thing that’s helped me all my life and to this day and until the day I die is my belief in God."
"I don’t fear nothing, nothing, but God, that’s the only thing I’m afraid of."
But for now, Howard and Oppegard are focusing on the trial.
“If he wins this case the judge would order him reinstated to his former job if he would not win the case then he’s out of a job," Oppegard said. "That could be the end of his mining career unless he’s able to find other employment but given his status as a safety activist in Easter Kentucky it probably would be difficult for him to find another job."
Representatives of Arch Coal said in a message, quote “We do not comment on matters involved in litigation.”