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April 6, 2011

West Virginia Coal Miners

[Page: S2097]  GPO's PDF 

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Mr. MANCHIN. Madam President, I rise to mark the tragic occasion of the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. A year ago today, 29 brave and patriotic men went underground to mine the coal that powers our great Nation. They didn't come back. Our entire Nation grieved with their families for their tremendous loss. I rise to honor

[Page: S2098]  GPO's PDF
their courage, sacrifice, and the extraordinary strength of their families.

I want to say a few words about the proud men and women today who go underground and go unrecognized and make sure that our great Nation can keep the lights on. When some people see a coal miner walk out from underground, they see some someone who is tired, wearing dust-covered overalls, steel boots, carrying a hard hat and a dinner bucket, and they make a few flawed assumptions about the amount of education they may or may not have or that they had nowhere else to turn, that was the only job available. I wish everyone to know that those assumptions are dead wrong.

West Virginia coal miners are the backbone of this country, providing the power for the lights in this Chamber, the steel and the machinery that built our country, the greatest industrial power in the world, the military that keeps us safe and free, and the energy for homes and businesses all over the country. West Virginia miners understand geology, mathematics and physics, the way a seam runs through the Earth and how to safely extract its bounty to make our country stronger. Above all, West Virginia miners are the salt of the Earth--patriotic, God-fearing, family loving and family oriented, and proud of their hard work. In our State we have always done the heavy lifting. We are very proud of what we have contributed to this country time and again--in times of war, times of peace, in times of prosperity, and in times of need. At a time when our Nation's attention and misplaced pity will again focus on coal miners because of the first anniversary of the worst mining disaster in the last 40 years, we West Virginians want the world to know we are proud of our coal mining heritage and our future.

As West Virginia's former Governor, now U.S. Senator, I want to tell Americans not only about our sacrifice but also our dedication to our shared future. The miners of West Virginia and their families are the heart and soul of West Virginia and an inspiration for me and my family. We should all draw strength from the courage they have shown us.

Allow me to turn to the terrible day a year ago. In remembering the Upper Big Branch disaster, my thoughts turn first to the families of the 29 miners who went to work that day on April 5, 2010, and didn't come home. In the days following the violent explosion, which remains under investigation today, I spent all day and every day for 5 days waiting to find out with the families if their loved ones were alive or dead. Those families and I stayed together at midnight and dawn, through moments of hope and despair, on pins and needles in the early days and in shared grief when the full scope of the devastation hit us as the rescuers didn't find any more survivors. We prayed together before and after each briefing. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We held each other and cried together. Restaurant owners donated food. Our own WVU coach Bob Huggins visited. And one young man, Nick Helms, whom I remember so well, whose father was killed in the Sago mining disaster in 2006, came down personally and offered his moral

support from his firsthand experiences.

In those days the unbreakable bonds of family became clear. One family alone lost three good men. I first told Charles and Linda Davis, the parents of Timmy and the grandparents of Cory and Josh. I told Tommy--and Tommy was another brother who had worked in the mine and just came off the shift. Tommy was the father of Cory. I also told Patty--large families--and Patty is the daughter of Linda and Charles, and she was Josh's mother. So in the mine we had Timmy, the uncle, and we had Josh and Cory. All three men had been found, but they perished. The first question I got from Tommy after I told his parents was: Were they all together?

I said: Yes, they were.

Tommy replied: I knew my brother Timmy would be taking care of the boys.

That was not my State's first mining disaster or mine. When I was a young man, my only family went through the tragedy of the Farmington No. 9 explosion in 1968. Seventy-eight miners were killed that day. It left a searing impression on me. Of course, we didn't know right away how bad it would get. Everyone camped out at the company store. We were all waiting for any word before the authorities finally came and told us all that the decision had been made to seal the mine which essentially meant entombing all of them. In that disaster I lost my uncle, my next-door neighbor, some of my high school classmates. One of my strongest lessons that has stayed with me to this day is that waiting families should be systematically updated on the progress of the rescue operation. I know firsthand that a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, and a day seems like eternity. With consistent updates, waiting becomes a little more bearable.

During my term as Governor, in the three tragedies we went through--Sago and Aracoma in 2006, and last year at Upper Big Branch--we briefed the families every 2 hours. It was a cycle. We received a briefing from our authorities, then we briefed the families, then we told the media. It was a cycle we continued until the fate of all miners was known.

We have learned a lot in West Virginia. After disasters at Sago and Aracoma, we enacted more safety measures in my term as Governor than in the 30 years before. We have become a leader in safety, and what we are implementing is being used across all types of mining, all over the country and around the world. The bottom line is that in our State, we won't tolerate intimidation from any person or company that puts profits ahead of safety. I truly believe that the single most important element in any mining operation is the men and women who work there every day. Under my watch, we empowered those individual miners and their families to take more ownership and control over their own safety without fear of retribution, with a 24-hour anonymous hotline to report unsafe conditions. Since May of last year we have had 86 calls. We responded.

At the end of the day, though, the families, the people of West Virginia and all Americans need to know how this tragedy happened and what we must do to prevent anything this terrible from ever happening again. We are still waiting for the results of the Federal and State investigations as well as an independent report from my special appointed investigator J. Davitt McAteer, a West Virginia native and assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton. We will look at the results of their investigation to determine what happened, make certain it doesn't happen again, and determine whether anyone, through intimidation or otherwise, put profits ahead of safety and that the people responsible are held accountable.

In the meantime I am cosponsoring a piece of legislation with Senator Jay Rockefeller, the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2011. It is designed to improve compliance with existing mine and occupational safety and health laws, empowering workers to raise safety concerns, prevent future mine and other workplace tragedies, and establish the rights of the families of victims of workplace accidents. Last week I spoke again to Tommy Davis, the man who lost his brother, his nephew, and his son at the Upper Big Branch mine. When I asked him what he was doing these days, Tommy gave me a simple answer: Joe, I am back in the mines. Tommy is proud to be a miner. And while he and all of us have much to mourn today, we also have the chance to honor the memories of the 29 dedicated men who died a year ago and their colleagues who continue their work with respect and dignity.

Finally, Gayle and I and all West Virginians pray for continued strength and courage for the families who lost loved ones on this sad day a year ago. May God bless each one of them. May God bless the great State of West Virginia, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

(Senate - April 5, 2011)

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