Miner's rights, two years after UBB
April 5, 2012 ·
Since the Upper Big Branch Disaster, families of the victims, and former Massey miners have spoken out about the fear to voice concerns. So has anything changed?
Today, marks the two year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, where 29 West Virginia coal miners died and two were injured. Four investigations into what caused the blast revealed poor, unsafe conditions in the mine , some that could have been resolved by preventative measures that have been in place in coal mines for about 100 years. So why did the victims continue to work in these conditions?
“I said tell him you think it’s unsafe and you want to be put out-by in a safer area cause he was a trainee," former coal miner Steve Morgan said, "see what they tell ya."
"The boss pulled him to the side there by himself and told him if you’re going to be that scared of your job you need to rethink your career.”
Steve Morgan told congress about the worries his son, 21-year-old Adam Morgan, had about working at Upper Big Branch almost two months after Adam died in the blast.
Along with four investigations, several other men, including former Upper Big Branch miner Stanley “Goose” Stewart, have talked about the conditions at the mine.
“Working under Massey they didn’t care," Stewart said. "For some reason they seemed like that was in their agenda to just break the rules. They didn’t have to follow the law. It was like they had a mentality that they laws were stupid. That’s my take on it.”
In Montcoal and surrounding rural towns, jobs are limited. Goose says he’s didn’t feel like he had a choice but to keep his head down, and go back underground.
“Work for them or don’t work,” he said, “and when you’re trying to feed your family and put them school and take care of every-day life and then you just had to put up with things. If you spoke too loud then you was out of a job and you wasn’t going to find one.”
But for about 35 years, the federal Mine Act has given miners rights. Rights to refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and if a miner is fired because of refusing unsafe work, the miner does not lose income. The miner can file for what’s called temporary reinstatement while the case plays out in court.
The federal law also gives miners a right to elect what’s called a miners representative. That’s when two or more miners choose a representative to go along with inspectors. The rep can point out problems and see what citations are written along with other things.
Goose says he did not know about these rights while working at Upper Big Branch. Even so, he suspects an elected miners’ rep at a Massey mine, would face challenges.
“He’s going to be a target,” he said, “and they’ll figure out a way to get rid of him without it pertaining to him bringing up safety issues. They’ve got their ways.”
He’s not alone. Gary Quarles, lost his son Gary Wayne Quarles in the blast. He too is a former Massey miner and says he was not aware of these rights.
Clay Mullins, lost his brother Rex Mullins, in the blast, also a former Massey miner. He says he knew nothing about the right to elect a miner’s rep.
Long time mine safety advocate and attorney Tony Oppegard says he’s not surprised.
“I don’t think all of miners know that they have the right to refuse unsafe work and the right to make safety complaints free of discrimination,” he Oppegard said.
“I think a lot of more miners know about their rights now than they did say 25 years ago but I’m sure there’s still miners out there who don’t know for instance if a boss tells you to do something that’s unsafe you have an absolute right to refuse to do it.”
Oppegard says MSHA could do a better job of raising awareness.
“The obvious benefit of that to a coal miner," he said, "is you have someone who’s familiar with the mine who can point out problems to the inspector that the inspector might not see or know about otherwise."
"So it’s a very important right and some inspectors don’t like having someone travel with them because they think well here is somebody looking over my shoulder telling me how to do my job.”
At Upper Big Branch, Mullins says inspectors were escorted by supervisors, and would sometimes hinder the effects of the inspections.
Oppegard would like to see federal law strengthened by preventing supervisors from being a miner’s representative.
“Congress needs to change that part of the Mine Act and specify in the act that members of management cannot be miners reps," he said, "because it defeats the entire purpose of the miners’ rep provision and frankly you don’t have management looking out for the safety of miners.”
Still Oppegard says he’s started to see improvements in one very important area.
“MSHA has been doing a better job of filing for temporary reinstatement on behalf of miners who have been fired from their jobs," he said.
MSHA launched an initiative shortly after the blast meant to raise awareness of miners’ rights. MSHA chief Joe Main is traveling the country to meet with miners directly to find out what they think about miners rights and what MSHA is doing as an agency.
“I am a firm believer that we can not do enough to educate our miners on their rights," Main said. "We have a long ways to go but I also know just setting back and look at what came out of these hearings there are a number of miners that are intimidated by the way the system works and do not feel comfortable to taking a chance to risk whatever it is their jobs … to raise the issues when they are not getting corrected. So we have to do a better job of that.”
Main would also like to see more tools in federal law to improve mine safety.
“When we were always asked about changes needed to the Mine Act," he said, "that’s always been on the top our list, the miners voice issues. "If we are going to do any reforms under the Mine Act looking at ways that we can better protect our miners to give them that voice.”
During the past session, West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation meant to improve mine safety. Speaker of the House Rick Thompson sponsored the bill. He says the law was written to solve issues uncovered in the Upper Big Branch investigations.
The bill ensures that miners in the state are instructed annually of their right to withdraw from unsafe working conditions along with their whistleblower protections. But Thompson would also like to see the federal government pass legislation.
“We need the feds, their help in making sure that these kinds of events don’t occur," Thompson said. "We need congress’s help. There’s legislation pending there they could look at ours expand on it.”
Massey was bought by Alpha Natural Resources last year but former UBB miner Goose Stewart worries that old habits die hard.
“A lot of their personnel still work at these Alpha mines," Stewart said, "not all ... because they won’t or can’t change their stripes cause they’re dong the way they’ve always done and they think that’s the right way but I know Alpha preaches running right and I hope they live by it.”
“I hope to goodness their lives weren’t lost in vain," he said, "It’s just a sad thing.”
“But I hope if something good can come out of it then it will.”
"The Upper Big Branch Mine" written by Will Price was performed by Santa John Johnson.