Tuesday, February 14, 2006

"My Husband Should Not Have Died In Vain" House Dems Hear Voices From The Mines

Democratic members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, headed by ranking member Rep. George Miller, (D-CA), listened yesterday to the families of coal miners killed in recent mine disasters, as well a leaders of unions representing miners. Officially, the session was called a forum, instead of a formal hearing because only by the committee's majority Republican chairman can call a hearing and they want to wait until the investigations are completed.

Here are some excerpts from the hearing forum:

Wanda Blevins, whose husband Dave Blevins, was killed in the 2001 Jim Walter mine explosion in Alabama:
My husband's body laid underground for 43 days before it was ever brought out. And I'm going to tell you: That is a long, long wait.

And it has terribly, terribly tore our family apart. And I cannot tell you the condition that it has left me in, mentally and physically. And my life will never be the same.

This is the man that I met and married at the age of 16, and he was 18. And he was the light of my life.

We are from McDowell County , West Virginia . David had 34 years underground working in the mines. He was U.S. Steel's youngest foreman ever. David never had an accident underground.

And he was a good foreman. He cared for his men. He never asked his men to do anything that he wouldn't do. I guess you could call him a union foreman. His men loved him. In fact, he was made a honorary member of the UMWA after his death. That says a lot for David Blevins.


And why is David Blevins dead today? Because of communication. There was no communication that day. There was no way of calling. Those men scrambled around that day in that mine like a pack of rats looking for communication. And because of lack of communication, there were 13 men dead -- lack of communication, a simple thing like communication, and 13 lay dead -- dead. Why? Communication.


So did my husband die in vain? I don't know. But he should have never died. My husband should have never died. My life should not be in turmoil right now. My grandchildren should have had their grandfather. I'm telling you, this is unfair to me.

My husband should not have died in vain. And I'm asking you to become his voice.
Scott Lepka, a miner currently at the Peabody Coal Federal No. 2 Mine in West Virginia. Lepka described how he was forced to drive himself miles to a hospital after almost severing his thumb in a mine accident:
And I've worked in union mines. I know for sure had this been a union mine first aid would have been administered immediately, an ambulance would have been called and waiting for me when I got outside and someone would have been appointed to monitor my condition and transport me outside.

I'd like to speak about another safety issue, also.

In the union mines, you have the right to a safe workplace, you have the right to withdraw yourself from a dangerous situation. You also have a safety committee that you can address about safety concerns or problems. In the non-union mines, you have the right to withdraw yourself under federal law. However, I can tell you from experience, most men won't due to fear for their jobs, and most men don't feel comfortable pointing out safety issues because if they complain too much, they're singled out and given less attractive jobs or even fired.
Randel Duckworth, a miner currently at the Federal No. 2 mine in West Virginia:
I went to work for a mine emergency service out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in the course of my duties, I was required to travel extensively across the country and the country's coal industry, mainly.

And I would work in both union and non-union mines alike, so I got a good taste of both sides of the spectrum.

I have come to find out, and based only on my personal experiences, that when I was at a union-represented mine, I was greeted with a safety committee appointed by the union to oversee the health and welfare of those employees.

And the material I worked with was considered hazardous, and it was properly marked. And the company I represented at the time followed the guidelines. And they did a good job letting people know what they were up against. They provided the mine safety data sheets which simply explains what the material consists of that we worked with.

In the union-represented mine, I would have at least two union miners. At least one would be on a safety committee situation. They would be there the whole time and they would require me to provide all the information: how to handle the substances, how to utilize the material, and all of that. They oversaw that.

My focus is not so much on union versus non-union, but it is on the truth that union mines provide another voice concerning safety and welfare for the workers.
Chuck Knisell, mineworker who used to work at the Sago mine:
I would just like to start out with a quote from John L. Lewis, the former president of the United Mine Workers and one of the leaders of the Health and Safety Act.

The quote is: "Coal has been splattered by the blood of too many miners, and that same coal has been washed by the tears of too many widows and their families."

That quote -- I'm not exactly sure when that quote was written down on paper -- 50 years ago probably. And here we go again: 16 deaths in a month.

It's time now for the government to stand up and take care of this problem. These coal companies are getting away with murder. And I'm not embarrassed to say that statement, because that's the facts.


I can go on and on all day about the things that I've seen. Talking about gases: Someone mentioned about methane detectors on mining machinery. One of the coal companies' tricks was to take a Wal-Mart bag and place it over what they call the sniffer on the miner, which snuffs out -- it's not able to "sniff," I guess you'd say, for the methane.

And that was one of their tricks. And that was enforced. I was the miner operator at one of those mines, and that's what I was told to do.
Amber Helms, daughter of Terry Helms who died in the Sago mine:
On top of all in my dad's life, his family always came first. He would rather buy my brother and I a trendy pair of shoes or a nice shirt before he'd buy himself something. He needed clothes, and he never did buy anything.

He was my pillar of strength. He was the person I went to when I was upset or whenever I thought that I wasn't going to do something right or I wasn't doing something in my full potential. He was always there to say, "You can do it."

I could've walked on the moon by myself. I could've flown there in his eyes. I could've done anything.

And my dad was more than just a dad to me. He was my best friend, he was my leader, my companion. He had my whole heart wrapped around his little finger.

If I never got married, and if I just lived with him the rest of my life, I'd be the happiest person in the world.


Yet these men work as we speak -- right now today there are men underground working in conditions and with equipment that are so outdated -- I mean, it's ridiculous that I can get a computer and I can make a full Web site in an hour and have it up and running so the whole world can see it, but no one can find my dad or no one can track these men.

The technology is out there.

In Australia , they have tracking devices that cost as little as $20. What's $20 to a company?

In Canada , how they have underground safe houses that contain water, food, first aid, oxygen. My only question is, "Why don't we?"

In America, coal is the number one single most important material that helps heat America's homes, light our very rooms and are the energy source -- I think I believe it was 52 percent, something like that. So why don't we protect these men who get this material?

Coal mining is a vigorous job that takes a true toll on a human's body, so we can at least try to protect these bodies that obtain America's number-one energy source.

I understand that nothing that I say today or nothing that happens in the future's going to bring my dad back.

But my uncle Johnny, my uncle Mike, my cousin Rocky, as well as every other miner that is underground and every other son who's getting ready to go into the coal mines because that's where the jobs are in West Virginia and maybe some of these other states, we can prevent their families for going through this. We can prevent them -- their lives. We can help them.

And it's time now to look to the past to prepare for the future, because the miners of the future are what matter now. And we can learn from everything that has happened, from miners that have to take their selves to the hospital because no one will help them.

I never want another family to go through the pain and heart ache as our families have went through.
Sarah Hamner, daughter of George Junior Hamner, one of the 12 Sago miners killed last month, reading a note left by her father:
"Hi, Deb and Sarah.

"I'm still OK at 2:40 p.m.

"I don't know what is going on between here and outside. We don't hear any attempts at drilling or rescue. The section is full of smoke and fumes so we can't escape. We are all alive at this time.

"I just want you and Sarah to know I love you both and always have. Be strong and I hope no one else has to show you this note.

"I'm in no pain but don't know how long the air will last. Tell everyone I'm thinking of them, especially Billy, Marion, Will, Bill and Peg. I love you all.

"Junior Hamner, 1/2/06 ."
Deborah Hamner, wife of George Hamner:
Besides showing Junior to be a loving man, I think there's a wealth of information contained in that note.

First of all, we can learn that the miners were still alive eight hours after the explosion; and, second of all, that they made an assessment that the section was too full of smoke and fumes and they could not escape.

They barricaded themselves at the face of the mines to confine the good air. And I understand that the materials needed to build a better barricade were not available on the section.

It breaks my heart to know that there's modern technology that could have prevented my husband's death and the Sago mines wasn't equipped with it.

I'm left with so many questions. One is why wasn't there a wireless communications system with the outside so that my husband and the other miners could have been told that the best chance for survival was to walk out?

Why weren't the escape ways well marked so the miners could have seen their way through the smoke and escaped?

Why hasn't MSHA required mines to be equipped with chambers or at least to require extra air supplies on the sections?

I think we all remember the Canadian miners that were able to escape because of the chambers. Why does Canada have better protection for its miners than we have in the United States, the most advanced country in the world?


Now there are private and secret interviews being conducted by MSHA, and they are to resume tomorrow. Many of the witnesses will be employees who are represented by lawyers paid for by ICG. I will not be allowed to attend. The miner may ask the UMW to step out, but the company's paid-for attorney can stay. Does this seem like a fair process to get at the truth?

I'm begging each of you to contact David Dye, MSHA's director, to make sure these interviews are public so that family members and their representatives may attend.
Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mineworkers of America:
Let me speak, if I could, to the issue of ventilating the mine with belt air. The law is very specific with respect to ventilating the mine with belt air. It is illegal to do that. You can't do that. Congress said you shouldn't do that.

But through rulemaking, that has been allowed to happen.

And let's speak to how that rulemaking has led us to these families having to come up here today with tears in their eyes and with widows who should be wives speaking to you in a very tearful and emotional manner, and children talking about how much they loved their fathers.

It is a failure of this United States government to protect the coal miners in the United States of America -- is what's wrong today.

Starting in 2001, we placed in charge of this agency -- that's supposed to protect coal miners -- a coal mine executive, which has already been mentioned today.

In 1969, when Congress wrote this act, they would have never said, "We've written this act and we've come to grips with the fact that this industry can't police itself, but now we're going to create an agency and give it to the industry to run."

They would have never done that in 1969, but we did it in 2001.

Not only did we do away with certain specific rules to protect coal miners' health and safety that were pending, we altered and changed the written law itself with respect to some of the common practices that protected coal miners at that time.

I suggest to you we're about to consider the exact same thing.

The president of United States has appointed another mine executive as his nominee to run this agency. And I suggest to you that we have written the president of the United States and said, "That's not a very good idea."

We should follow the lead of the governor of Virginia who, just today, is announcing he's appointed a coal miner -- a coal miner -- to run the state agency in Virginia.

And the federal government would be in a better position to say they care about coal miners if they looked at doing something exactly like that.

I want to say today that no one can say for sure that any accident or fatality or any tragedy could be prevented. But if I suggest to the United States Congress in joint session that we're going to cut off all the oxygen in the chamber and we're going to have a vote -- we're going to vote -- on: Would you like to have an hour's worth of oxygen or little more, would you like to have a situation where there's eight hours of oxygen or 10 hours, there would be bipartisan support in that chamber, 100 percent vote for oxygen to protect the members of Congress.

I think the coal miners in this country are just as good as any single member of Congress or anybody residing in that White House today. They should have the same types of protection that they would vote for themselves.