Prosecuting a whistle-blower; state agency should reconsider message

Mackie Bailey
Mackie Bailey

The state officials who are supposed to protect Kentucky's miners are endangering them by trying to punish a whistle-blower whose testimony produced mine-safety convictions in federal court.

By seeking to put Mackie Bailey on probation for a year, the state agency that licenses miners is sending a tacit message that miners should keep quiet, even when safety violations become life threatening.

This puzzling prosecution raises doubts about whether the state lawyers responsible for mine safety enforcement have a clue about the reality in which miners work.

Coal operations that want to increase production and save money by cutting corners on safety don't hesitate to hold the threat of firing over anyone who might be tempted to complain.

As Bailey told Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep, "They remind you every day there's a hundred men standing in line for your job."

As the Appalachian coal industry continues to contract, miners will feel even more pressure to trade their safety for a paycheck.

Manalapan Mining Co.'s P-1 mine near Pathfork was a smorgasbord of preventable dangers and potential disasters.

In a better world, Bailey would have refused to work for even a day under such unsafe conditions and would have reported the violations sooner.

But, then, so would all the other miners and managers.

More to the point, state and federal inspectors failed to discover serious violations until Bailey came forward and, tragically, a miner died in the P-1 mine due to other safety violations not directly related to those reported by Bailey.

Bailey's testimony and photographs aided the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Justice Department in obtaining guilty pleas from three Manalapan supervisors and the company.

The state is not seeking to ban Bailey from mining. He would still be able to work if the Mine Safety Review Commission agrees with the administration and places him on probation — providing any coal company will hire him. Being on probation would increase his penalties for subsequent violations.

All that's beside the point. The stress and humiliation of having to defend himself for doing the right thing is an onerous punishment.

Kentucky lawmakers should pay attention to this injustice and look for ways to strengthen whistle-blower protections for miners.