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AFL-CO delegates discuss plans for 1924 mine disaster memorial

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A group told delegates at the West Virginia AFL-CIO's annual meeting on Thursday about efforts to complete a memorial for 119 coal miners killed in the third-largest mine disaster in West Virginia's history.

The explosion at the Benwood Mine in Marshall County, owned by Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., happened on April 28, 1924.

"The miners went to work that morning at 7 a.m. By 7:10, they had all died," said miner Josh Bates, a member of the Benwood Mine Memorial Committee.

Delegate Michael Ferro, D-Marshall, said the state Legislature has donated $15,000 to the memorial fund. "We need to raise $60,000 more to build the memorial," Bates said.

The only larger mine disasters in the state happened at Monongah, Marion County, in 1907, where at least 361 miners died, and at Eccles, Raleigh County, in 1914, where 183 miners died.

The Marshall County Historical Society, based in Moundsville, is overseeing fundraising efforts for the memorial.

Also at Thursday's meeting:

* Ted Hapney, coordinator of the United Mine Workers political action committee, criticized Patriot Coal for cutting off health benefits for retired miners, most of whom previously worked for Peabody Coal or Arch Coal.

Peabody and Arch transferred their union mining operations to Patriot Coal, a company created in 2007 that filed for bankruptcy in July 2012. Arch's first sold its union mines to Magnum Coal, which transferred them to Patriot.

UMW President Cecil Roberts has said ending health coverage for Patriot Coal miners "takes a tremendous amount of money of out of communities," cutting back payments to pharmacies, doctors and medical clinics.

"It might be legally correct, but it is morally corrupt ... to do this to workers, retirees and widows," Roberts said.

Hapney said 22,000 beneficiaries recently lost health care coverage. "But last year, Peabody made more than $4 billion in profits and Arch made more than $300 million....

"We need to focus on changing our bankruptcy laws in this country," Hapney said.

* Debby Ellmore, who works with the Reconnecting McDowell project, spoke about the group's efforts to improve life in McDowell County.

"The infant mortality rate is still up, but child mortality is down," Ellmore said. "Teen pregnancy rates are still the highest in the nation, but the number of homeless children is down."

She stressed the importance of cutting prescription drug abuse, calling the McDowell County town of War "the most prescriptive drug-riddled place in the United States."

* Sam White and Tony Michael, from the Institute for Labor Studies and Research at West Virginia University, spoke about the recent passage of new state right-to-work laws in Indiana and Michigan.

Today, 22 states have right-to-work laws that allow employees at unionized workplaces to avoid paying union dues, even though union leaders negotiate contracts and are required to represent them in any workplace grievances.

Labor unions face hard times. Today, unions represent 11 percent of all workers. During the years between the New Deal and the mid-1970s, union often represented a third or more of the nation's work force, with much higher percentages in industries including coal, steel, auto and chemicals.

State AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue urged people attending Thursday's conference in downtown Charleston to invite Institute for Labor Studies scholars to speak to their members at local union halls and facilities.

* Joe Main, a West Virginia miner who became head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2009, said his agency has improved since then, when "half of our inspectors had less then two years of experience."

Today, MSHA conducts inspections at 14,500 mines, including metal mines and coal mines, as well as sand and gravel operations.

Main said the Upper Big Branch tragedy on April 5, 2010 -- when 29 miners died in an explosion at a Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County -- "should never have happened."

But company officers "put production ahead of safety.... And they hid stuff from the inspectors."

At the time, Main said, it had been "four years since any miner filed a complaint to MSHA from that mine. Intimidation was thick."

Although Main believes things are improving, he said, "In the last month, six miners died, four of them in West Virginia," Main said.

"These accidents were preventable. They should not have happened."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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