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Letcher miner sues employer




A Letcher County coal miner claims in a lawsuit that his employer improperly disciplined him for videotaping underground safety problems and showing the footage to federal inspectors.

Charles Scott Howard filed the suit last week in Letcher County Circuit Court. He is seeking unspecified financial damages for “the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The move came on March 22, one day after Howard filed a complaint with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission against Cumberland River Coal Co. for reprimanding him.

Kim Link, spokeswoman for Cumberland River Coal, said the company disagrees with the allegations Howard makes in the lawsuit. She declined to comment further.

Howard played the videotape to officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration last year during a public hearing in Lexington. It showed barriers, which were constructed to seal off worked-out sections of the Brand Mill mine where he worked, with cracks so large that water gushed through them.

The barriers are supposed to be impenetrable so that explosive methane gas can’t seep into places where miners are working.

After seeing the video, federal inspectors went to the mine and issued citations. The company, in turn, presented Howard with a written reprimand for violating company policy against taking a video camera into the mine.

Howard filed a federal complaint on March 21 with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission alleging that he was improperly sanctioned for documenting unsafe working conditions.

Lexington attorney Tony Oppegard, representing Howard, said the company shouldn’t be allowed to punish a miner for documenting unsafe conditions.

“When a company disciplines a miner for making a safety complaint, it has a chilling effect,” Oppegard said.

Oppegard is asking federal authorities to order the coal company to remove the reprimand from Howard’s personnel file and to order management personnel to undergo training about the rights of miners.

Interest in faulty underground mine seals arose two years ago following the deaths of 17 miners in Kentucky and West Virginia from methane gas explosions. After the explosions, the federal mine safety agency imposed tougher standards for the design and construction of seals.

Twelve men died at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in January 2006. Five others died at the Kentucky Darby mine in May of that year. In both cases, the blasts were fueled by methane in abandoned, sealed areas of the mines.

Oppegard said the inspectors cited Cumberland River Coal for failing to perform preshift inspections of the seals and for not building the seals of material designed to impound water.

Link said at the time that the problems at the mine were fixed shortly after Howard shot the video in late April.

In the lawsuit, Howard said he was unaware that Cumberland River Coal had a policy against taking a video camera underground. He said in the lawsuit that using the video camera posed no risk to anyone.

Howard claims in the lawsuit that he believes the company issued the written reprimand as a first step toward firing him.

“That’s a step in the process that leads to termination,” Oppegard said, “and all miners know that.”

Roger Alford is a reporter for The Associated Press.


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