UBB family skeptical of new state mine safety law
A custom made coal miner statue with a mustache similar to Benny Willingham stands in the family's yard.
April 3, 2012 ·
During the state session this year, West Virginia representatives passed a law meant to improve safety in mines. Some of the families are skeptical.
Four investigations into what happened at Upper Big Branch basically concluded that coal dust build up, combined with excessive methane and a spark caused an explosion that killed 29 men and injured two more. Federal lawmakers failed to pass legislation shortly after the explosion in 2010.
“He can never be replaced never,” Michelle McKinney said. She lost her father Benny Willingham in the 2010 disaster.
McKinney plans to spend the two year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Disaster in Mobile Alabama. Last year, she took off to Myrtle Beach South Carolina along with her daughter and mother. She says it’s too hard to stay home. McKinney finds comfort in working to keep his memory alive.
“I set and I watched the funeral,” McKinney said as fought back tears. “It’s just so hard but I don’t let his memory die. I’ve turned my TV room into in memory of my dad, with pictures of coal miners.”
“My best friend had a blanket made for me with just pictures of all of us.”
“I will never quit talking about him people tell me to quit talking about him that the healing will be better but not for me. It’s just not fair, I think we could do better if had have happened another way besides that way.”
Two years ago, McKinney voiced her rage to reporters in front of Marsh Fork Elementary as she clutched a picture of her father. Today, those feelings remain.
“It was murder that’s all you can say murder. I’m as angry today as I was two years ago,” she said.
Like many of the families, McKinney blames upper management for her father’s death and wants to see people like former CEO Don Blankenship face charges. But the only felony charge under the Mine Act of 1977 is falsification of documents.
Chief security guard Hughie Stover was recently convicted and sentenced for destroying documents. But the mine superintendent Gary May plead guilty just last week to conspiracy … to defraud the federal government, a felony but the crimes were not recognized under mine safety legislation.
The United States prosecuting attorney’s office says the superintendent fooled inspectors by manipulating the ventilation system. He’s also accused of disabling a methane monitor on a cutting machine months before the blast, again that’s not a felony. The charges stem from his efforts to fool federal officials, not willfully causing dangerous environments.
This past session, West Virginia representatives passed a law that makes it a felony for knowingly making a false statement and other things.
Speaker of the House Rick Thompson sponsored the bill.
“We examined all three reports and looked at those things first that they all agreed on,” Then we looked at the recommendations of all the reports and based upon those recommendations tried to implement everything that we could to make our mines safer for our miners.”
The new state law requires upper management to sign off on safety-logs and acknowledge the conditions of the mine.
“You’re moving on up the chain instead of just the mine foreman who could face potential criminal liability you’re moving up to the mine superintendent who could face potential criminal charges if they violate our mine safety laws.”
Michelle McKinney has lived in the southern coal fields most of her life. She’s skeptical the laws will reach deep underground.
“If they pass all these new laws, safety laws and stuff are they going to go by them, no,” she said.
“This happens everywhere my husband’s a coal miner, my brother’s a coal miner my uncles’ were a coal miner. It happened then it will never change, because they are only worried about a dollar.”
The new law also requires more research into how to strengthen enforcement. Speaker Thompson says he hopes the law is the beginning of mine safety improvements.