COAL MINER'S WIDOW CONTINUES TO SPEAK OUT AGAINST MINING CONDITIONS DESPITE THREATS -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
Bob Simon Reports from Harlan County, Ky., Where Six Died in the Mines Last Year
One of the six men who died in the coal mines of Harlan County, Ky., last year was Melissa Lee's husband, Jimmy. So she speaks out against the industry's safety practices, despite the threatening phone calls she says she receives for attacking the biggest employer in her rural and poor area. Lee talks to Bob Simon for a 60 MINUTES report on the coal industry to be broadcast Sunday, March 11 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
"I was receiving phone calls, blocked calls, out-of-area phone calls, making ugly comments that I need to shut up, that I talk too much," Lee tells Simon. "They don't give their names. I have men calling and saying, 'You know your kids catch the bus right down here below your driveway.'"
Lee won't stop her crusade for mine safety because it's not just about her late husband. "There's too many people still here in Harlan County who have husbands underground. And if me speaking out keeps their sons safe, their grandsons safe, their son-in-laws safe, then I've done something good. My husband's death wasn't in vain," says Lee.
Lee's husband died in a methane gas explosion, which is just one of the ways miners can die underground. Other reasons why 47 men died in coal mines last year in America -- the most in over a decade -- include roof collapses, coal dust explosions and equipment accidents. In the case of Jimmy Lee, state investigators concluded that methane leaked through a wall that had been improperly constructed to seal off an abandoned part of the mine he worked in. The gas was accidentally ignited by a blowtorch.
Lee and the widows of other coal miners have been making appearances to support a state mine safety bill initiated in response to mining accidents in Eastern Kentucky like the ones that killed their husbands. Safety reform is meant to clamp down on mine operators who may not be complying with safety requirements. "The majority of the fatalities occur because of the lack of compliance with the mine health and safety laws," says the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Richard Stickler.
Many of the mines where fatal accidents have occurred have not paid fines imposed for safety infractions and, what's more, says Stickler, "There are mines that...continue to operate that have not paid their fines." This is especially true of mines suffering fatalities, which can often get courts to reduce fines or they may just neglect to pay them because few mine operators have been prosecuted for non-payment.
Generations have worked the mines, despite the danger, because they offer just about the only decent living one can make in Harlan County. And many miners, including Jimmy Lee, says his wife, have no hesitation about their jobs. "[The mine] was his second home. He would always say it was time for him to leave me to go to his second wife, which was the mines," Lee tells Simon.