HARLAN COUNTY MINERS MEMORIAL SERVICE - AUGUST 19, 2006
For the past 27 years, I have been privileged to represent many eastern Kentucky coal miners and their families - including miners from Harlan County - and to advocate for mine safety. It truly has been a privilege to work for miners, who labor under very difficult conditions and who otherwise would not have had anyone to fight for them.
I want to thank all of you - the widows and other family members of the miners killed this past year in Harlan County - for allowing me to speak today. It is a great honor. I didn't know any of the miners prior to the accidents that took their lives, but in working with you and getting to know you during this past year, I feel like I know each of your husbands.
About 30 years ago, the brilliant West Virginia singer/songwriter, Hazel Dickens, wrote a beautiful and haunting song entitled "Coal Miner's Grave". Hazel sang:
Up there on that hillside, there's an old miner's graveHazel's song, which recounts the true story of the death of a miner, is also a metaphor for the inattention that coal miners receive in our society. Although miners are mythic figures in many ways - because they work under the mountain in dark, dangerous places, where most of us would not work and will never experience - they nonetheless are rarely recognized by our society until there is a mining disaster. In fact, most miners die one at a time, and they receive very little public attention.
And the briars and bushes about cover it up these days
And there's no one to claim him or care if he's gone away
For he was only a miner and it's only a coal miner's grave
So pay no attention, it's only an old miner's grave
Pay no attention to the briars and the weeds, let them stay
'Cause who's gonna miss him or care that he's gone away
For he was only a miner and it's only a coal miner's grave...
The purpose of today's service is to recognize publicly the sacrifices made by the miners of Harlan County, particularly those who have perished in the mines this past year, an thus to honor them. As Kenny Johnson said, we want to celebrate the lives of these fine men. And in my view, there is no greater way to pay tribute to these miners than to speak out for mine safety - as many of these brave women and families have done in the past year.
I see a lot of coal miners in the audience [acknowledge them]. And every miner in this audience - indeed, every miner in Harlan County - knows that there are miners working today in Harlan County, right now on the 2nd shift, who are working in unsafe conditions. There are miners being made to work right now under unsupported top. There are miners who are working without ventilation curtains being hung - and that is why we read the other day in the papers that Harlan County is a "hot spot" for miners who are still contracting black lung disease. There are miners working with the safety features of electrical equipment bypassed or "bridged out". And there are miners who are working without thorough preshift exams for hazardous conditions and onshift exams for hazardous conditions having been performed. Most miners endure these dangerous conditions for one reason: because they need to support their families and they can't afford to lose their job, which is precisely what would happen if they complained.
So the next time you hear that a coal miner has been killed by a "freak accident", don't accept that characterization. There are no "freak accidents" in mining. The next time you hear that a miner has been killed by an "Act of God", don't accept that characterization. Every mining fatality in Harlan County this past year was the result of an act of man, not an act of God.
And the next time you hear the argument that most coal miners cause their own deaths by carelessness - and what is needed is more "behavior modification" by miners and fewer mine inspections by federal and state inspectors - don't accept that simplistic worn out excuse.
I'm extremely proud of these remarkable widows and families because they haven't let the briars and the weeds cover up their coal miner's grave. They have honored their loved ones by speaking out for mine safety, and by trying to prevent other mining families from going through the pain they have experienced. They have been extremely strong and courageous, and all miners and coal mining families owe them a debt of gratitude. May God bless them, and may all of you keep these women and families in your prayers. Thank you.