June 11, 2012 The Pump Handle 1Comment

by Beth Spence

Carrying enlarged photographs of their lost loved ones, family members of three of the 29 miners killed in the 2010 explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine spent June 6-7 in Washington, D.C., pleading with lawmakers to take action to improve mine safety and to stiffen penalties for mining companies that knowingly, willingly and recklessly place miners’ lives at risk.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) stands with Clay Mullins, Betty Harrah, Gary Quarles and AFSC staff member Beth Spence. Photo by Bryan Vana, American Friends Service Committee.

Betty Harrah’s photo showed her brother Steven with his son Zach, who was not quite seven when his father died. Harrah said Zach, now nine, draws pictures of his father in “a box instead of his pick-up truck where he belongs,” and the boy told her he hates for Sundays to come because that is the day he spent with his dad.  Harrah pointed out that although it had been two years, two months and two days since the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years, the Congress has yet to act on legislation to better safeguard miners’ lives.

Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) stands with AFSC West Virginia Economic Justice Program Coordinator Beth Spence and Upper Big Branch family members Betty Harrah, Clay Mullins and Gary Quarles. Photo by Bryan Vana, American Friends Service Committee.

Fighting back tears and carrying a photo of his son wearing miner’s gear, Gary Quarles offered a tribute to 33-year-old Gary Wayne Quarles, who left behind two young children in addition to his grieving parents.  “This wasn’t just my son.  This was a heck of a man,” the senior Quarles said.  “A good man. We don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve gone through.”

Neither does Clay Mullins, whose younger brother Rex was among the victims.  “I’m a coal miner,” said Mullins, who spent 34 years in the mines. “We know right from wrong in coal mining.  The employers know right from wrong.  But they chose to do the wrong thing.  They did not provide these men with a safe workplace.”  (1 minute video clip here; for more of Bryan Vana’s photos from the Washington visit here.)

Five reports have been issued by state, federal and independent investigative teams, all supporting Mullins’s claims.  Investigators determined that UBB owner Massey Energy put profits before worker safety and failed to put in place safety practices known to prevent disasters (here, here, here, here, here.)   In addition, the company threatened to retaliate against workers who raised safety concerns.  Said Quarles,

“Miners need to know for sure they have protection. From the CEOs down, people need to be held responsible.  They’re the ones that give the orders.  The whistleblower protection is more important now than ever because with layoffs, companies can pick and choose who they lay off. And they’ll pick people who speak out.”

The UBB family delegation met with senators and representatives of both political parties who serve in key positions on committees that oversee worker safety.  In addition to stronger penalties for upper-level officials who violate safety laws and whistleblower protection, they asked for subpoena power for investigators and increased fines for rogue operators who repeatedly ignore safety laws.

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, who two years ago introduced a bill that carries the name of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, expressed frustration that lawmakers have failed to recognize the urgency of passing mine safety legislation.

“I have been pushing to pass my bill for two years, but we have yet to see movement.  That’s absolutely unacceptable,” Rockefeller said.  “We owe it to these families, and all the current and future coal miners and their families, to pass crucial reform.  We absolutely cannot wait for another disaster to take place and mine safety.”

Harrah said she hopes that the family members were successful in putting the faces of their loved ones back in the minds of members of Congress and reminding lawmakers that they are still waiting – two years, two months, two days and counting.  “If nothing else, that’s a good thing,” she said.

Beth Spence is the coalfield specialist for the American Friends Service Committee, a  Quaker organization committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service.  She served on the independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch disaster.

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