The president of the United Mine Workers on Tuesday warned union members that federal safety inspections have been significantly curtailed, and urged coal miners around the country to call elected officials and demand an end to the government shutdown.
"The government's watchdog isn't watching," UMW President Cecil Roberts said following the deaths of three coal miners on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in West Virginia, Illinois and Wyoming.
On Tuesday night, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also expressed his concerned about the potential impacts of the government shutdown on coal-mine safety in West Virginia and across the country.
"While details are still forthcoming about this and other mining fatalities we've suffered in recent days, I cannot help but to express my deep frustration about the misguided government shutdown that has furloughed MSHA inspectors and prevented them from conducting the regular inspections that make sure coal companies are operating their mines as safely as possible," Rockefeller said.
"As I've said, it's time for the House to send the Senate a clean funding bill so we can get our government running and our mine safety inspectors back to work," Rockefeller said.. "The safety and health of our miners depends on it."
In a prepared statement, Roberts echoed the Monday comments from Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who called the string of deaths "extremely troubling."
"The circumstances surrounding each of these fatalities are different, and I do not want to draw immediate conclusions as to their causes based on incomplete evidence at this time," Roberts said. "But it is extremely troubling that within a week after the federal government shutdown caused the normal system of mine safety inspection and enforcement to come to a halt, three miners are dead."
Roberts added, "I urge all miners, union members or not, to be especially careful at work. Check on your buddy. Watch each other's back. Take extra precautions when operating machinery.
"And finally, call your members of Congress and Senators and tell them while they're squabbling, miners are dying."
Meanwhile Tuesday, the coordinator of Mountain State Justice's new Miner Safety and Health Project said that the government shutdown is likely to delay the process for miners with pending black lung benefits appeals.
Sam Petsonk said that, prior to the government shutdown, it would already take miners more than a year to get initial hearings before Labor Department administrative law judges.
The department's contingency plan called for it to furlough all 122 staff in its ALJ section, and to delay all hearings. The Benefits Review Board, the next step in appealing a black lung case, was to cut staff from 66 to 4.