UBB families look for help from Capitol Hill
Clay Mullins gets ready to board a plane headed for D.C. He's asking lawmakers to pass legislation that would help prevent another UBB.
June 7, 2012 ·
Three families of the victims in the Upper Big Branch Disaster are in the nation’s capital this week. They’re meeting with federal legislators to ask for laws to protect miners. They talked to West Virginia Public Radio as they left.
“I never ever thought I’d have to do this," Gary Quarles said as he fought back tears. "I’ve never ever thought I’d have to go to Washington D.C."
More than two years after an underground explosion at a mine in Raleigh County owned by Massey Energy at the time killed Gary Wayne Quarles, talking about his son’s death is still very difficult for Gary Quarles.
“I’ve never been there in my life," he said, "but if it’s to protect what coal miners are working today underground I’m going to do whatever I have to do and ask what questions I need to ask and go from there.”
Gary and his wife Patty proudly wear matching t-shirts to commemorate their son as they prepare for their first trip to the nation’s capitol.
“My shirt says it’s my son when he was killed in loving memory of my son Gary “Spanky” Quarles and it’s got the date when he was born and it’s got the date of the UBB explosion," he said. "Gone but not forgotten.”
They’ve packed several more T-shirts to wear as they meet with elected officials including Sen. Rockefeller, Sen. Manchin, and Congressman Rahall.
They also plan to meet with California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, and Congressman George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The democrats introduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2010, shortly after the explosion killed 29 West Virginia miners, the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.
The bill was meant to address issues learned at the Upper Big Branch explosion.
It failed to pass the House along party lines. The National Mining Association lobbied against the law and most Republicans cited the need to find out the results of ongoing investigations before voting in favor of new laws.
All of those major investigations by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training, and an independent investigation are now complete.
Beth Spence was the lead writer for the independent report.
"Throughout history when mining accidents like this have happened," she said, "there’s been a response and a reaction."
"There’s been like a big silence it seems like this time. Twenty-nine men died and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency about addressing the conditions that lead to their deaths.”
The report, led by former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, pointed to a blatant disregard for basic coal mine safety principles that have been around for years.
That’s appalling to Clay Mullins, a former miner who lost his brother Rex Mullins in the blast.
“We shouldn’t have to do this," Mullins said. "We shouldn’t have to, they should be made to obey the law. And if the penalty was stiff enough now when they do a flagrant violation to levy a heavy penalty on them then I don’t think we would have to go to Washington.”
Mullins says he’s going to DC to continue to be a voice for the miners.
“We’ve just got to stand up. We’ve got to stand up for these 29 men that lost their lives and the future miners," he said. "I don’t want to see another family go through what we’ve had to endure."
"It’s horrible it’s awful. Nobody should have to do that. A person should be able to go to their workplace and put in an honest day’s work and know that they’re going to come home that next day or that evening or whenever. They’re going to be home to see their loved ones. Not be laying their grave where the only way you can talk to them is to go up to their grave site and talk to them.”
The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Act would have increased a miner’s right to blow the whistle on unsafe conditions by making it a criminal action to retaliate against those who speak up for safety in a mine.
Families of the victims would also like to see company management face criminal charges but under current federal law, if a miner knows about unsafe conditions and intentionally takes steps to avoid reporting it, it’s a misdemeanor.
The only felony offense under the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act is falsification of records. MSHA’s investigation revealed that there were two safety logs kept at Upper Big Branch. And while the US Attorney’s office is still investigating the possibility of filing charges, that’s unlikely to happen since the evidence does not support the committing of felonies.
The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act would have addressed this issue by making it a felony for a supervisor to know about an unsafe condition and failing to do anything about it.
Spence points out that one of the recommendations in the report is requiring a superintendent to be certified.
“I think as long as we only have foreman who are held responsible for these things," Spence said, "and they’re not the people who make policy and not the people who set the standard for the mine, until that level of responsibility goes higher into the management we’re probably not going to see the kind change we need to see.”
In January of this year, Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito introduced the Mine Safety Accountability and Improved Protection Act. . While Capito’s bill does call for officers, directors and agents of the companies operating the mine to be held civilly and criminally liable, mine safety advocates say the language is weak.
Capito voted against the Robert C. Byrd bill.
During the past session, West Virginia lawmakers passed legislation meant to improve mine safety. 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. Some state lawmakers have said they want to see the federal government pass legislation.
Senators Jay Rockefeller, and Joe Manchin as well as Tom Harkin of Iowa, Patty Murray of Washington reintroduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act in this congress back in January of 2011.
The miners families say they don’t want any more time wasted. They want to see congress vote, by July 4.