Coal Mine Widows Prove Powerful As Lobbyists

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Claudia Cole would have considered herself an unlikely person to be a lobbyist in the state Capitol.
She preferred the simple life of wife and mother. But when her
husband was killed in a Kentucky coal mine, the country girl from
Harlan County and several of her neighbors who had been widowed in
the same way stepped forward to say enough is enough.
Through tearful pleas, they persuaded lawmakers to pass sweeping
mine safety legislation, a feat even some long-term lobbyists
thought impossible, especially with key lawmakers trying either to
kill the measure or to gut it of important provisions.
"Sometimes I got down, but there was no way I was giving up the
fight," Cole said. "I got strength from knowing that I was doing
something that I knew my husband would be very proud of."
Average citizens like Cole are underdogs in the world of
political lobbying, where wealth and power wield influence. So when
the coalfield widows came to town, and pushed through the mine
safety law, people took notice.
"There are no more effective lobbyists for mine safety than
women who have lost their husbands in the mines," said Tony
Oppegard, an attorney for the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in
Prestonsburg.
Because of their efforts over the past three months, underground
coal mines in Kentucky will get increased scrutiny from state
inspectors and more miners will have detectors to check for
explosive methane gas.
Those initiatives are part of a law that nearly died in the
legislative process, only to be revived by the committed widows.
The sponsor, state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said the
measure hit roadblock after roadblock until, he confided, he had
"significant doubts" that it would pass.
"I think it shows what people can do when they're determined
and have the passion to do the right thing, and when they have
right on their side," said Steve Earle, a longtime lobbyist for
the United Mine Workers of America.
Kentucky's new law follows one of the deadliest years in recent
history for Kentucky coal miners. In all, 16 miners were killed in
2006, five of them in a methane gas explosion in Harlan County in
May.
The law will require inspectors from the Office of Mine Safety
and Licensing to double their visits to underground coal mines from
three to a minimum of six per year. It also requires at least one
member of every underground crew to have a methane detector.
Oppegard said Kentucky now has perhaps the strongest mine safety
law in the nation. He said several provisions exceed even federal
requirements. Among the provisions peculiar to Kentucky is a
requirement to have mine emergency technicians on duty on every
shift.
Stella Morris, another coalfield widow, had pushed hard for that
because she said her husband, David "Bud" Morris Jr., would still
be alive had he gotten adequate first aide following an accident in
a Harlan County mine. He lost both legs after being struck by an
underground coal hauler.
In a lawsuit, Stella Morris said the only certified emergency
technician working at the time of the accident failed to render aid
that could have saved her husband's life. A federal report quotes a
paramedic who said basic first-aid likely would have saved the
miner's life.
Tears practically flowed down Stella Morris' cheeks at times
when she talked with lawmakers.
"On my way to Frankfort, I would talk to myself and I'd say
'you're not going to cry, you're not going to cry,"' she said.
"But I just miss him so much."
For Cole, the top priority was getting a provision into law that
required government inspectors and coal operators to provide more
training for a deadly mining practice in which the very pillars
that up overhead layers of rock are removed.
Known as "pillaring," the practice has been blamed for the
deaths of at least 17 coal miners in southern Appalachia over the
past nine years, including at least four in Kentucky over the past
three years.
When miners have removed as much coal as possible from a mine
using conventional process, they begin removing the pillars,
allowing the roof to fall in planned collapses. Sometimes, however,
it doesn't go according to plan, as was the case when her Cole's
husband, Russell, was killed in 2005 by an unexpected roof fall.
The new law requires coal operators to give the Office of Mine
Safety and Licensing 48 hours notice before beginning to remove the
pillars. That gives state regulators time to visit the mine to
ensure that all the miners are thoroughly trained in the proper way
to do the work.
Cole said she's convinced the requirement will save lives.
Earle, who has been a full-time lobbyist since 1990, said the
widows proved to be a persuasive team because they joined forces to
support the overall legislation while each pushed various
provisions. In that way, Earle said, they were able to get the
legislation back on track each time it stalled.
"It was a roller coaster ride," Morris said. "We'd come to
Frankfort with high hopes. We'd leave disappointed. But we won in
the end."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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