With little fanfare, families of Upper Big Branch coal miners lobby Congress for mine safety legislation

June 8, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

Gary Quarles, Clay Mullins and Betty Harrah hold pictures of their loved ones who were killed in the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners, Thursday, June 7, 2012, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

You couldn’t follow them on Twitter or watch them live on the Internet. Nobody got arrested or sang protest songs.  It wasn’t part of some national call-in day. None of the big national groups who spend so much time talking about the damage coal inflicts on Appalachia were part of it or said anything about it.

But earlier this week, the families of three of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster were in Washington, D.C., trying their best to push Congress to pass legislation aimed at protecting the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners. As The Associated Press reported:

The relatives met with about a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both chambers and said they were encouraged by the feedback they received. Nevertheless, they realize that Congress is unlikely to approve the legislation this year.

Betty Harrah of Beckley told reporters that she understood lawmakers needed time to evaluate the investigations conducted after the explosion to craft the right remedies. She said the visits helped to reinforce for lawmakers that lives were unnecessarily lost as a result of unsafe mining practices.

“We put their faces back in their minds,” she said, nodding to a picture of her brother Steve. “If nothing else, that’s a good thing.”

Clay Mullins, who lost his brother, Rex, at the Massey Energy Co. mine, told lawmakers that legislation should increase protection for employees who report unsafe mining practices. The legislation should also enhance accountability through stiffer penalties for those employers who don’t provide a safe workplace. He said repeated violators of the law should especially face tougher penalties.

“It all comes down to greed, putting production above human life,” said Mullins, a coal miner from Pax. “That shouldn’t be tolerated in this country.”

I was left wondering why political leaders and industry front groups that profess to care so much about coal miners haven’t staged a massive protest outside the Capitol, demanding that Congress act to pass the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act. Why hasn’t the West Virginia Coal Forum used taxpayer money to bus coal miners to Washington to talk about health and safety? Why doesn’t FACES of Coal run constant ads on the radio demanding safety reforms?

Where were the Friends of Coal when the Upper Big Branch miners needed them?

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