On the heels of a West Virginia coal mining death, families of the 29 men killed in the Upper Big Branch mine dedicated a memorial Friday to their fallen relatives and those injured in the April 2010 explosion.
An outpouring of support helped complete the memorial a year ahead of schedule, according to the project’s volunteers. But still ongoing is a federal criminal investigation into the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.
The ceremony, which drew public officials along with scores of area coalfield residents, also came as party-line disagreements continue to sideline safety legislation in Congress meant to respond to Upper Big Branch.
Kanawha County coal miner Mark Haynes believes his industry has become safer since Upper Big Branch. The 52-year-old man is part of a motorcycle contingent that ride in parades to honor those killed.
“I know this, that other companies, including the company that I work for, have straightened up their act on a lot of things because of the explosion,” Haynes said.
The memorial features a 48-foot long black granite monument with life-size reverse silhouettes of each of the 29 miners. The back of the monument lists their names along with panels that describe the history of coal in West Virginia.
It sits in a small park-like plaza bordered by the Big Coal River on one side and W.Va. Route 3 on the other. Those attending the ceremony sat or stood in the road’s northbound lane, with coal trucks frequently passing by.
“It’s an honor to be here, and it’s an honor to see that they actually recognized the fallen miners,” said Doug Griffith of Dry Creek. His brother William Griffith, 54, and his 52-year-old brother-in-law, Carl Acord, were among those killed.
Family members applauded Shelia Combs, who led the effort to build the memorial, and Rob Dinsmore, a state resident and landscape architect who designed it. For several, the tears began to fall with the opening invocation by State Police Chaplain James Mitchell, who had ministered to them immediately after the explosion during rescue efforts. Mitchell cited the Gospel passage that appears along the bottom of the monument, “Come to me, all you who labor, and I will give you rest.”
Representatives of the rescue teams removed the monument’s shrouding. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin began his remarks with a moment of silence for Johnny Mack Bryant II, who died at an underground mine about 20 miles from the memorial.
Another speaker, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced mine safety legislation prompted by Upper Big Branch for the third time since the disaster.
As in earlier versions, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act launched Thursday proposes further whistleblower protections, harsher penalties for criminal safety violations and a revamped system for declaring a pattern of violations at a mine with chronic safety problems. Upper Big Branch had been cited by federal regulators repeatedly before the explosion.
One of the bill’s new provisions also draws from the ongoing federal investigation of the disaster, by barring coal operators from keeping two sets of pre-inspection logs. Then-owner Massey Energy Co. maintained two sets of such books at Upper Big Branch — an accurate, production-focused record for itself, and a sanitized version to throw off inspectors, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration found.
The bill now also calls for a stricter limit on breathable coal dust, and a revisiting of that standard every five years. This dust causes black lung, an irreversible disease that has contributed to the deaths of more than 70,000 miners since 1970. MSHA’s investigation found that at least 17 of the miners killed at Upper Big Branch — nearly two-thirds of those whose remains had enough lung tissue for testing — had signs of black lung.
Upper Big Branch memorial Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ubbminersmemorial
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