The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 25           July 10, 2006  
Kentucky miners’ relatives:
‘No miner has to die’
HARLAN, Kentucky—“We are fighting so no other families have to go through what we are going through,” said Rosa Brock, the sister of Roy Middleton, who was killed on the job along with three other miners and a mine superintendent at the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County near here after a May 20 blast. “They can make the mines safe. No miner should have to die and no family should have to lose a loved one in order to make a living,” she told the Militant in a June 23 interview.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky mine health and safety agency has ordered three foremen and a worker at the Darby No. 1 mine to appear for questioning. According to an attorney representing the families of the four miners the questions will focus on conflicting testimony given at a previous hearing and the possibility that records regarding checks on methane levels at the mine were falsified.

Two of the three foremen subpoenaed by the state agency failed to appear at a separate federal investigation on June 22 for a second round of questioning by the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA). Participation at the MSHA hearings has so far been voluntary.

Miners and other working people across Harlan County have been expressing outrage at the deaths and the apparent foot-dragging by government agencies.

Amon Brock, 51, who press reports describe as a mine superintendent, and miner Jimmy Lee, 33, were killed by the blast in the early morning explosion in nearby Holmes Mill. Miners Roy Middleton, 35, George Petras, 49, and Paris Thomas Jr., 53, survived the blast but suffocated from carbon monoxide.

According to press reports United Mine Workers of America safety official Kenny Johnson and attorney Tony Oppegard requested that two of the foremen be recalled for questions because of conflicting statements made about whether or not there were metal roof straps that intersected the mine’s seals.

Seals are used to isolate dangerous gases in abandoned sections of a mine. Oppegard said he believes the explosion was ignited by a torch that was being used to cut the roof straps at the seal where methane gas was leaking, reported the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“The company is required once a week to do an examination of the seals,” Oppegard told the Harlan Daily Enterprise, “and you have to check the methane level at those seals. We wanted to ask two of these foremen about falsifications of records regarding those methane checks at the seals.”

Johnson and Oppegard were added to the federal investigative panel when several of the miners who had been called as witnesses designated them as their representatives. State officials denied a request by the families of the dead miners that Johnson and Oppegard represent them at the state hearings. The two said they have renewed the families’ request.

“They don’t tell us anything,” said Rosa Brock. “It’s like they have something to hide. All we want is answers so that we can have some kind of closure.”

“How can they find the truth if they can’t subpoena people to testify,” said Dan Middleton, Roy’s father, referring to the refusal of the foreman to appear at the federal hearing.

“The companies got rid of the union and now they can do whatever they want to,” said Ray Harris, a retired union miner. “And the miners are paying for it with their lives.” None of the coal mines in Harlan County are unionized today.

Judith Corbin, a store clerk, said she fears for her husband’s life each day he goes to work. “I don’t want him to go but what choice do we have?” she asked. “The government’s not doing anything. They are still talking about the men killed at Sago. But what are they doing?”

“All the mines around here are unsafe,” said a miner who worked in Darby Mine No. 1 and asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal by the company. He said management at this mine is notorious for turning a blind eye to safety in order to meet production quotas. This includes broken lights on machinery and on miners’ helmets, he said, radios that don’t work, allowing miners to smoke underground, and running power lines to machinery that are patched together and have exposed wires. He described Darby Mine No. 1 as very gassy.

This worker also confirmed statements by miners at the hearings that they had received little or no training in constructing seals. He said workers would often be instructed to use wood or paper to patch up gaps in the seals.

On May 26, less than a week after the explosion, MSHA issued a “significant” citation against Darby Mine No. 1 because at least six seals in a different section of the mine from where the May 20 explosion occurred were improperly built.
Related articles:
UMWA holds rally in W. Virginia to unionize Peabody mine  
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