Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, is one of the world's largest mining companies. Arch's "highest management levels" participated in the "blatant discrimination" against a Kentucky miner who went public with underground safety violations.
That's according to federal administrative law judge Margaret Miller, who ordered Arch subsidiary Cumberland River Coal Co. to reinstate fired whistleblower Scott Howard and pay a $30,000 penalty.
Howard's offense? The year after faulty mine seals contributed to fatal explosions that killed 17 miners, he showed a video of faulty seals at the Cumberland River Coal mine where he worked. Howard shared the video at a public hearing on mine safety after he and co-workers informed company management of the danger.
In a business that's famous for brutally stifling dissent, Howard, who lives in Letcher County, testified before Congress. He reported to regulators underground hazards, such as blocked escape routes and insufficient ventilation, which resulted in federal citations against the Arch subsidiary.
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Howard had waged a successful legal battle against Arch's attempts to fire him, until, working alone in an Arch mine two years ago, he was struck in the head and suffered brain trauma.
Although he recovered from that injury, company e-mails make it clear Arch and its subsidiary really did not want Howard back, and he was fired again. The judge said there was "open hostility" toward him.
Howard's hard-won battle is a victory for his fellow miners (even if they are afraid to celebrate publicly).
Assistant U.S. labor secretary Joe Main, who oversees the Mine Safety and Health Administration, praised the ruling, saying protecting miners who speak out about violations is the bedrock of federal mine safety law.
Howard and his lawyer, Tony Oppegard, have shown the law can work for miners.
But too many times it doesn't.
Case in point: Ralph Napier, one of the operators of the Kentucky Darby mine, where five miners died in a 2006 explosion linked to shoddily installed seals, is back in business.
His Harlan County mine was shut down for nine days last month after federal inspectors found a host of safety violations, including no ventilation and accumulations of combustible dust.
On Wednesday, two congressmen from California asked Napier and two other Kentucky coal operators to submit plans for paying their large backlog of mine safety fines.
Kentucky leads the nation in unpaid mine safety fines, according to reporting by The Courier-Journal's James R. Carroll.
There's a world of difference between a corporate giant like Arch and the small operation run by Napier. One constant is a casual, if not contemptuous, attitude toward the safety of workers.
Unfortunately, that same attitude prevails in Congress, where mine safety legislation, including better protection for whistleblowers, has been stalled.
It's a sad situation for those who have no economic alternative but to go underground. As long as this country depends on coal miners, it owes them a safe place to work.