Kentucky Coal Mine Widows Prove Powerful as Lobbyists

April 4, 2007

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.”

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