Eastern Kentucky coal miner's pay restored while he pursues claim

Man pursuing claim that efforts to improve safety resulted in termination

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 23, 2011 

An Eastern Kentucky coal miner who argues he was fired for attempts to improve safety has had his pay restored while he pursues the claim.

The company where Charles Scott Howard worked, Cumberland River Coal Company, will pay him $1,753 a week, according to an agreement signed earlier this week.

Howard, of Letcher County, has gained a reputation as a fearless safety advocate, filing numerous complaints about unsafe conditions and testifying to a congressional panel about mine safety.

In July 2007, Howard showed federal mine-safety officials a videotape showing leaking seals at Cumberland River Coal mine.

Howard showed the video at a hearing on tougher standards for such seals, which were implicated in explosions that killed 17 miners in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2006.

In the latest case, Howard said Cumberland River Coal fired him on May 16, when he was in training to return to work after being seriously injured in a mine accident in July 2010. The reason a company employee reportedly gave was that a doctor said Howard could not work around moving equipment, and he could never again work underground, because of the brain injury he suffered in 2010.

However, the same doctor had said earlier that Howard could return to work, with the only restriction being that he couldn't work at heights, and that he had the mental capacity to do any job he had the training or experience to do, according to a report by Gary Harris, an investigator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

After that initial finding by the doctor, however, talks had broken down over settling another complaint by Howard; he had filed a lawsuit against the company; and his attorney, Tony Oppegard, had given information to a member of Congress that led to questions about whether a vice-president of Arch Coal Company, which owns Cumberland River, had testified truthfully to a committee, Harris said in his report.

The investigator concluded Cumberland River fired Howard — whom two other doctors had cleared to work — because of his role as a safety advocate.

Activities such as filing safety complaints are protected under the federal mine act.

A federal judge ordered the company to reinstate Howard on June 15.

However, the law allows companies to reinstate miners economically rather than physically, meaning to pay them without having the miner come to work. That's what Cumberland River offered for Howard.

The company agreed to pay Howard his salary for 40 regular and 20 overtime hours a week; continue other benefits such as insurance coverage; and pay him retroactive to May 16.

The arrangement will last as long as the judge's order reinstating Howard is in effect or a federal review panel decides his discrimination claim.

Howard will stay away from Cumberland River Coal's mine.

"Cumberland River clearly does not want Scott on its property," Oppegard said. "I assume the company thinks that Scott will infect the other miners with 'safety consciousness' if he's allowed to work with them."

John Snider, a spokesman for Arch Coal, said the company could not comment on the case.

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