Upper Big Branch families ask D.C. to act now on mine safety

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WASHINGTON -- When Betty Harrah's nephew makes pictures of his father, he draws him in a grave, not in the pick-up truck where Ms. Harrah says he rightly belongs.

Now she is on a dual quest: first, to make sure the 9-year-old knows all about his father, Steve Harrah, through both family stories of his life and newspaper accounts of his death at Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Second, she wants to protect children of other miners from the kind of grief her family has been facing since the fatal mine blast in 2010.

Ms. Harrah came to Washington this week with relatives of three other miners killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster. Their aim was to keep the faces and stories of the victims fresh in the minds of lawmakers who they're asking to stiffen penalties for companies that operate unsafe mines.

"We want every employee in this country to have a safe place to work in," said Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex was among the 29 who died at Upper Big Branch.

Over three days they had back-to-back meetings with 10 senators and congressmen who, they said, provided encouragement that mine safety legislation would pass. The question remains: When?

Government agencies and independent investigators have issued report after report recommending more stringent mine regulations and steeper penalties, but so far there has been no significant overhaul.

"I'm so tired of reports I can't see straight," Ms. Harrah said, choking up during a news conference in the Capitol. "They've got their reports. They can't use that as an excuse anymore."

Still, she said, she's willing to wait if the regulations will be comprehensive.

Legislative response to the 2006 Sago Mine disaster came much quicker, but it didn't go far enough to protect those who died at Upper Big Branch, then operated by Massey Energy, Ms. Harrah said.

"There's a saying that legislation is written in the blood of a coal miner. The legislation is written after a coal miner is killed or really hurt. ... This time I want to do something that will prevent it from having to be written in blood again," she said, holding a photo of her brother with his young son. "Even if they take two or three years, I want it done right this time. ... I want to see legislation done, but I want it done right so you don't have another family that has to come up here."

Gary Quarrles made the trip to honor his son Gary Wayne Quarrles, who was 33 when the blast took his life. As he addressed reporters he held a photo of his son wearing his mining gear.

"It's really hard for me to do this, but I'm here to stand for the rest of the underground coal miners and everybody else that has to work a job every day," he said. "We want laws to be put in effect."

The changes they seek would make it a felony to provide advance notification of mine inspections as Massey executives did, increase penalties for repeat violators, provide subpoena power to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and add whistleblower protections for miners who raise concerns about safety.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292. First Published June 8, 2012 12:00 AM


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