September 13, 2007 The Pump Handle 2Comment

One of the benefits of blogging at The Pump Handle is connecting with people who have first-hand experience with our nation’s inadequate public health protection system.  We’ve heard from parents and wives who appreciate us writing about their loved ones’ fatal on-the-job injuries, and federal employees who share their unique experiences with how scientific information is used (or misused) in public health decision-making.  Today, I’d like to introduce you to Mrs. Patty Sebok, who I first “met” a few months ago through a blogpost at Gristmill.  We’ve been exchanging emails since then about her work with Judy Bonds at Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization battling powerful economic and powerful Goliaths that which support mountaintop removal mining.

Since then, I’ve learned that Patty Sebok’s father was a coal miner, and her mother was only 3-years old when her own father was killed in the 1921 Blair Mountain March (and here) in Logan County, WV.  Fighting for justice runs deep in Patty’s blood.  When overloaded and speeding coal haulage trucks became a menace in her community, she worked diligently to get a coal-truck safety bill passed.  She’s been working since then with Coal River Mountain Watch and other groups who live with the damage caused by mountaintop removal mining to communities.  (Yes, they’re “environmentalists” because it is the environment where they live!)

Through my email exchanges with Patty, I’ve also learned about her husband, 57-year old Harry “Butch” Sebok.  He is a Marine and Vietnam Vet who became a red-hat coal miner and joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1976.  Butch Sebok proceeded to work nearly 30 years as an underground coal miner, most of that time at the same mine: Peabody Energy’s Pine Ridge Coal Company’s Big Mountain Mine in Boone County, WV.*  In October 2004, coal-miner Sebok suffered a serious neck-spinal injury at work, and that began this family’s battle with another Goliath: the workers’ compensation system.  (More on the inadequacies and perils of workers’ compensation here, here, here, here, here.)

A few weeks ago, when the tragedies unfolded at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, Patty and I exchanged numerous emails.  She agree to let me share some of her thoughts with you:

I’ve been reading all the articles and some blog posts about the miners trapped in the coal mine in Utah.  It sickens me to hear what Bob Murray has to say.  He talks about east coast elites who don’t know where there electricity comes from.  That they don’t know what a bucket and hard hat are.  [here]

Well I know all too well where my electricity comes from and all about a bucket and hard hat.  I’m the wife of a disabled, retired, union, underground coal miner.  I know all too well how dangerous mining is and how coal barons like Mr. Murray feel about coal miners and their families.  They use you up and toss you out like yesterday’s trash without another thought.

I have some personal experience with the coal industry and how they treat injured miners. 

Patty went on to tell me about her husband Butch’s on-the-job injury in October 2004.  When Peabody found out the severity and the disabling nature of Mr. Sebok’s neck injury, he was sent to the “company” doctor.  Within two days of that visit, Butch was told that his injury was not work-related, and he would not be further reimbursed for lost-wages or for medical care related to the injury.  To-date, he has only received three lost-wage reimbursement payments from Peabody Energy’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier. 

Patty wrote:

That’s how much they care about their employees. So now my husband isn’t able to work, and had to take an early retirement just so we can make ends meet.

Why do I think the workers’ compensation system is broken?  Because I hear stories like this one.  Here’s a man who labors nearly 30 years underground in a union mine, work that obviously takes a toll on the body.  When he suffers an injury, obstacle after obstacle is put in his way to prevent him from receiving lost-wage reimbursement and medical care.  What kind of a public health protection system is that?  A broken one, that’s what it is.

  The chronology of events goes like this:

 (1) Peabody Energy disputed that Mr. Sebok’s neck-spine injury was work-related so they challenged his workers’ compensation claim.  

(2) The Sebok’s appealed the worker’s compensation carrier’s decision with the WV Office of Judges.  The Office of Judges ruled in the Sebok’s favor.

(3) Peabody Energy challenged the Office of Judges’ ruling, so the case went to the WV Board of Review.

(4) The Board of Review ruled in favor of Peabody Energy, so the Seboks have appealed that decision to the WV Supreme Court of Appeals.

(5) The WV Supreme Court of Appeals has not yet heard the case.

Recall that Mr. Sebok suffered this injury nearly three years ago, and this matter is still not resolved.  According to Butch Sebok’s physician, the herniated disk in his neck is so severe, if damaged further, it could cause paralysis.  For that reason, he has not been able to go back to work in the mines.  With no income provided through workers’ compensation, Mr. Sebok, 57, had no choice but to take early retirement.  He wasn’t ready to retire, Patty told me, but there wasn’t really any other option for them.

In an interview with The Boone Standard, Butch Sebok said:

“As long as your working, it’s fine, but if you get hurt, you’re screwed.” (here)

In my conversations with Patty, I’ve also learned that Peabody Energy failed to file the required accident report with MSHA because they insist the injury is not work related.  When pressed allegedly by MSHA to submit one, they complied but state “filing this form in no way acknowledges our belief the injury is work-related.”  (We haven’t yet seen this for ourselves, but the Seboks have filed a FOIA request to obtain these records from MSHA.)  

Through another Pump Handle-connection, I spoke to another disabled coal miner and we determined that his injury was also not reported to MSHA.  I worked with him to file his own FOIA request.    

So, when my 84-year old dad asks “what’s all that blogging good for?” I respond “the people I would otherwise never meet.”

*Use MSHA’s Data Retrieval System to search records on this mine (Mine ID#: 4607908)

2 thoughts on “Coal Miner’s Wife Tells it Like it Is

  1. Dealing with Workers’ Comp is a crucial, and almost inhumane. I can honestly say that they need to be considered as organized criminals. I say this because my family is still struggling with them, and has been since 1997 when my mother had an on-the-job accident. Because she was sent to one of their ‘doctors’ (which if you do enough research, you’ll notice that many of them are not even real doctors of medicine), her diagnoses was prolonged, and her condition kept getting worse and worse as time progressed. Now, in 2007, she’s undergone 3 cervical discectomies and fusions on her cervical spine. She was almost paralized. After the surgeries, she had to learn to pretty much walk again. And in order to get approval for anything, I have to fight with them every day. I’m close to getting fired from my job because of them, and my poor mother is now so depressed, that she even considered suicide.
    I have contacted a city councilman, and his reps are reviewing the documents, so hopefully, the media can have some sort of impact on these people. But one cannot give up; you have to keep on fighting and not let them get away with this.

  2. Joanne,
    Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am so sorry for the suffering that you and your mother have endured in fighting for justice from the workers’ comp system. Kudos to you for continuing on with your battle, and remember that you are not alone. It is stories like yours that inspire others to push for reform!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.