Miners memorial is unveiled

Monument to fallen miners dedicated at Cumberland in Harlan County

dhjalmarson@herald-leader.comAugust 15, 2009 

CUMBERLAND — Coal trucks rumbled by on the highway near the community college in Cumberland Friday as a monument was unveiled to honor the miners who have died filling those trucks.

Business rolls on, and the miners' families work to keep memories alive and safety at the forefront of public discourse.

Stella Morris' husband, Bud, died in a mine accident on Dec. 30, 2005.

"Since that moment, I knew we had to find ways of honoring our men," Morris said Friday at a ceremony filled with tears, music, calls for stronger safety legislation and labor organization.

"This nation owes the coal miner an unbelievable debt. An unbelievable debt," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts.

"The coal miner has been better to their country than their country has been to them."

Hundreds of thousands of miners have been killed in the mines or later in life after years of breathing deadly dust, he said, and to chalk up the deaths to the cost of doing a dangerous job is an insult.

Legislation wasn't passed to require mining companies to implement certain safety measures, Roberts said, until a high-profile disaster killed 78 miners in 1968 in Farmington, W.Va. In 25 years before the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, 12,000 miners died, Roberts said. In 25 years after, 3,000 miners died.

"These miners didn't just die. These miners at Farmington were heroes. Because 78 miners gave their lives to save 9,000. You will never find another more heroic event in your lifetime," Roberts said to a crowd that included Eastern Kentucky miners not represented by unions.

But union or no union, state and federal law protects all miners, Roberts said. "We should in these hills make a stand for every miner who died."

Morris raised the money for the memorial on Ky. 2006, just off U.S. 119. It is a black stone tablet, engraved with names and mounted with pictures of Harlan County miners who have died in accidents or of black lung in the last 35 years.

Morris said she knows her opinions aren't always popular.

Laws aren't strong enough yet to protect the miners, she said, and already there have been attempts to repeal some laws: In 2007, Morris lobbied against proposed changes to rules that require two medics on a shift at every mine. Enforcement is now a problem, she said.

"I feel like there need to be more mine inspections than there are," Morris said.

Coal companies too often "put production over safety. These deaths are proof of that," she said.

There is a naiveté about the importance of mining to Eastern Kentucky, state Rep. Charles Siler said.

"The people who had the gall and grit to be coal miners are a special kind of people," Siler said. Loyalty to the coal companies in the mountains is bred generation after generation.

But that doesn't excuse lax enforcement of safety rules, he said. "It's useless to have the rules on paper if you don't have people on scene" to enforce them, he said. He said one of his priorities is to maintain the inspection and safety work force in the state.

The "working man," Siler said, must be protected and honored.

Dori Hjalmarson covers Eastern Kentucky for the Herald-Leader. Reach her in the Pikeville bureau at (606) 653-2111.

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