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'Poverty Tour' Takes Wellstone to Kentucky
by Pat Arnow
In These Times

It's been 30 years since a senator from outside of the Appalachians came to Eastern Kentucky to listen to coal miners. And what Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone heard on a stop of his national "Poverty Tour" shocked him.

"I'm convinced that most people in this country--and I'm absolutely convinced that most people in Congress--think that what you're describing is something that took place 50 years ago," Wellstone told a group of eight miners and one young widow he met in Hazard, Ky., on August 29.

Rita St. Clair, the 27-year-old widow of a miner, recounted the story of how her husband was electrocuted after being told to repair a piece of equipment on which he was not certified to work. He had pleaded not to be assigned tasks for which he was not qualified, she reported. Mike Hoskins told Wellstone he was fired after 16 years as a miner simply because he took a short break in an eight-hour shift to remove an uncomfortable rubber and plastic mask. Larry Hatton said he lost his job for complaining about coal dust so thick that he could not see the remote control in front of him on the continuous mining machine he was operating.

These conditions are typical in the largely non-union mines of Eastern Kentucky, says Tony Oppegard, an attorney who represents miners who are fired for refusing to work under unsafe conditions. Miners are afraid to speak out because they often lose their jobs, says Oppegard, who organized the meeting with Wellstone.

One of the biggest problems in the mines is coal dust. "Dust not only causes black lung, but it's an explosion hazard," Oppegard says.

Currently, mine owners track their own dust levels, which they consistently report as within federal standards. Oppegard says the government uses the reports of clean air, which he calls a "farce," as evidence that miners cannot be getting black lung. He says only 5 percent of miners collect on their claims for black lung benefits.

The visit with the miners was one stop on Wellstone's cross-country investigation into the living conditions of poor people. Like Robert F. Kennedy's tour in 1967, Wellstone's trip may be a test of the presidential campaign waters.

But the meeting galvanized the senator to support legislation funding new federal safety inspectors. Upon return to the Senate, Wellstone spoke in favor of a Labor Department appropriations bill to hire 24 federal inspectors to monitor coal dust.

The appropriations bill awaits approval.

October 19, 1997

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