WASHINGTON -- A Kentucky miner whose whistleblower case recently caught the attention of mine safety proponents on Capitol Hill was fired yesterday, his lawyer said.
According to attorney Tony Oppegard, Charles Scott Howard lost his job at the Cumberland River Coal Company after a doctor employed by the mining company determined he could no longer work underground. The firing came just days after an executive at Cumberland River's parent company Arch Coal was accused by House Democrats of giving "contradictory" testimony regarding alleged whistleblower retaliation against Howard.
The well-known mine safety gadfly has now filed a discrimination complaint and asked that the Mine Safety and Health Administration investigate. Over the years, Howard has lodged several safety complaints against his employers. He even shot video of apparently dangerous conditions at the mine where he worked once and aired it at a public MSHA meeting -- an action which allegedly led to previous retaliation from Cumberland River.
During a May 4 mine safety hearing on Capitol Hill, Arch Coal executive Anthony Bumbico was asked about this alleged punishment against Howard for taking his safety concerns public. Bumbico testified that the miner had chosen to go public rather than bring the problems to the attention of Cumberland River Coal management. In fact, Howard had repeatedly noted the problems in company log books, as detailed by the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News.
In a letter sent last Friday to Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, George Miller (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said that Bumbico needs to clarify his "questionable" statements regarding Howard's case. Earlier this week, a spokesperson for Arch Coal told HuffPost, "should we receive a letter seeking clarification [from Congress], we will respond accordingly."
According to Oppegard, Cumberland River Coal recently offered Howard a "substantial amount of money if he would agree to permanently resign his position with the company and agree not to reapply." He declined to do so.
As for the timing of Howard's firing, Oppegard said it will be up to an administrative judge to decide whether it was coincidental. "I think it's well known that Cumberland River doesn’t want Scott at its mines," he said.
More than a year after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch Mine, in which 29 West Virginia miners died, Congress has not managed to pass a major safety reform bill. The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act failed in the House last year under Republican opposition but has since been reintroduced. Among other changes, the law would bring more scrutiny to mines with "patterns of violations," increase the criminal penalties against unsafe mines and enhance protections for mine whistleblowers like Howard.
Testifying at the May 4 hearing as a guest of Republicans, Bumbico argued that MSHA already has the regulatory tools it needs to ensure safe workplaces. Rather than take on more oversight, he said, MSHA should adopt a "voluntary" safety compliance program for mining companies.