Mine Safety Bill Stalls; Widows Urge Lawmakers To Take Action

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Tearful testimony by widows and children of coal miners killed on the job wasn't enough to persuade a key lawmaker to allow a vote on legislation intended to take some of the dangers out of working underground.

"I'm just hoping that our voices will be heard, so that no other families go through what we've went through," said a weeping Claudia Cole, who testified before the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee on Thursday. "They're not doing enough. We're still here fighting to try to get some of these laws passed."

Committee chairman state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, said at the close of a hearing Thursday that he still hasn't decided whether to bring the legislation up for a vote in the natural resources committee, which he chairs.

Cole's husband, Russell Cole, was killed when the roof caved in inside a Harlan County coal mine in 2005. She and her two teenage daughters were among a group Appalachian residents who came to the Capitol to lobby in favor of tougher laws.

Paul Ledford of Dayhoit, who survived of an explosion that killed five miners in Harlan County last year, said he was discouraged that lawmakers listened more closely to coal industry lobbyists than to miners and their widows.

"They don't care about the common man," he said.

The legislation that's pending in Kentucky would increase the number of mandatory state inspections done at underground mines each year from three to six, require additional oxygen supplies along escape ways, provide methane detectors to every miner, put trained medics at each mine, and give grieving families direct access to information and testimony about deadly accidents.

"It has very commonsense things in it that are designed to protect safety," said state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, who is sponsoring the legislation.

However, Gooch has refused to allow a vote on the measure. Even after the testimony by Cole and others that had some lawmakers and members of the gallery in tears, Gooch would not commit to bringing the matter up for a vote in the current legislative session.

Gooch said the committee would hear testimony from representatives of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and the Office of Mine Safety and Licensing next week to determine whether new laws enacted last year were sufficient to protect miners.

"We wanted to see how what we did last year was working before I brought something else new," he said.

The legislation follows one of the deadliest years in recent history for coal miners in Kentucky. In all, 16 miners were killed on the job in 2006. Five of the deaths were from a single Harlan County underground mine explosion in May.

Yonts said he believes the spike in workplace fatalities shows state law needs to be modified.

State law now requires more oxygen supplies to be stored along underground escape routes in case of emergency, better communications between the surface and underground work areas, and a directional cord or lifeline to make it easier for miners to find
their way to exits.

Yonts' measure also requires the lifeline to be made of fireproof material so that it wouldn't be destroyed in an explosion.

State Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, a former coal miner, said he has concerns about level of regulation that the state is putting on the mining industry.

"You can regulate the business out of business," said Couch, a member of Gooch's committee.

Bill Londrigan, head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO labor group, said it appears the coal industry has been able to pressure certain lawmakers into not taking action on the legislation.

"It looks like it's being held victim to politics," Londrigan said. "We think that's unconscionable."

Steve Earle, a lobbyist for the United Mine Workers of America, said he had been assured that leading Democratic lawmakers would support the mine safety bill.

"If we don't get mine safety legislation through this session," Earle said, "we're going to hold people accountable."

If the legislation proposed by Yonts had been in effect last year, it would have done nothing to save any of the miners who died on the job, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. He said the legislation isn't needed.

"It's the rush to pass legislation that creates unintended consequences and loopholes," Caylor said.

However, Stella Morris, whose husband David Morris Jr. bled to death after being struck by a machine in an underground mine in 2005, said a provision in the legislation that would require two trained medics to be on duty at each mine would indeed save lives.

Morris said her husband wouldn't have died if someone had known how to properly apply a tourniquet to stop bleeding after his legs were severed in the accident.

"Common sense is common sense," Morris said. "Why not fix the problem to see that it doesn't happen again?"