WASHINGTON -- More than two years after losing their loved ones, relatives of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster traveled from West Virginia to Capitol Hill this week, hoping to pressure lawmakers into passing what they described as much-needed mine-safety reforms.
Congress hasn't settled on comprehensive mine-safety legislation since 29 miners perished in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy's mine in Montcoal, W.Va. But victims' family members said Thursday they are confident that House and Senate lawmakers would eventually get the job done, especially now that official investigations into the disaster have wrapped up.
"It's been two years, two months and two days today. They’ve got their reports -- they can't use that as an excuse anymore," said Betty Harrah, the sister of 40-year-old Upper Big Branch victim Steven Harrah. "I feel like [lawmakers] want to do something. I really do."
Seven family members met privately over two days with several senators and representatives who hold the keys to reform, including Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Although the families wouldn’t provide details on the feedback they got, they said lawmakers generally were receptive to the major reforms the families asked for: tougher criminal penalties for the managers responsible for miners' deaths; stiffer fines for mining operations that repeatedly flout safety rules; and stronger protections for whistleblowers who step forward with safety concerns.
"I'm a coal miner. I've been a coal miner almost 34 years," Clay Mullins, whose 53-year-old brother, Rex, died at Upper Big Branch, said Thursday at the Capitol. "We know right from wrong in coal mining. The employers know right from wrong. But they chose to do the wrong thing ... and not provide these men with a safe workplace."
Official investigations have placed the blame for the disaster squarely on managers at Massey, which was sold to mining giant Alpha in 2011 for $7 billion, fostered a corporate culture that put profits before workers' well-being. Deeming Upper Big Branch a "preventable" tragedy, federal investigators said that Massey routinely hid safety problems from inspectors and even went so far as to keep two sets of books on safety problems -- an accurate one kept internally, and a watered-down version to share with inspectors. Miners who spoke up about dangers in the mine were threatened with termination, investigators found.
Despite the devastating findings on the disaster, safety reform is by no means a sure thing. The GOP-controlled House has been loath to put new regulations on businesses, and mining companies have been lobbying hard to keep the lightest possible regulations on the industry. No safety bill has managed to make it out of committee in either chamber since the disaster.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced his own safety bill two years ago, but it stalled in the Senate. After meeting with the Upper Big Branch families Wednesday, Rockefeller said in an email that Congress, "needs to recognize the urgency of passing mine-safety legislation."
"I've been very frustrated that it has yet to happen," Rockefeller said. "[W]e owe it to these families, and all the current and future coal miners and their families, to pass crucial reform. We absolutely cannot wait for another disaster to take place and mine safety must be a key focus."
More frustrating than the state of legislation, victims' families said, is the lack of criminal prosecutions that came from the disaster. Mine superintendent Gary May pleaded guilty to a fraud charge in March and is expected to be sentenced in August, while former safety chief Hughie Elbert Stover was sentenced to three years in prison for lying to investigators. No other high-ranking officials has been prosecuted.
"Hell yeah, we're mad," said Harrah. "We ask [the Justice Department] for meetings all the time ... We're angry, every one of us."
Harrah joined Mullins and Gary Quarles, whose son, Gary Quarles Jr., died at Upper Big Branch, to speak on Capitol Hill Thursday. Each carried a blown-up photo of their respective miner throughout the trip, to show the lawmakers what the victims looked like.
"We've put their faces back in their minds," Harrah said. "If nothing else, that’s a good thing."