Buckhannon man to help mine whistleblowers
By Ken Ward Jr. Staff writer
Last year, Nathan Fetty watched his community suffer through the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago Mine disaster. Now, the Buckhannon resident is going to do something to help coal miners across the state deal with safety problems.
Fetty is starting a new project to provide free legal services to miners who have voiced safety concerns and then been retaliated against.
“Living in the community and watching the Sago disaster unfold was really gut-wrenching,” Fetty said. “It impacted the whole community, and it impacted me. I wanted to do something to help.”
This month, Fetty launched the West Virginia Mine Safety Project, an initiative of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment.
“The coal industry has a duty to provide safe workplaces for miners,” he said. “This project gives miners a place to turn for help when they need to speak up about safety problems.”
Federal and state laws prohibit coal operators from firing or otherwise discriminating against miners for voicing safety concerns. Miners who feel they were punished for safety complaints can seek back pay and reinstatement.
Despite these legal protections, many miners fear retaliation if they complain about unsafe conditions, said Tony Oppegard, who founded a similar project in Kentucky and has represented coal miners in discrimination cases for years.
“Discrimination against coal miners for making safety complaints or for refusing to work in unsafe conditions is especially prevalent in non-union mines, where miners don’t have the benefit of safety committeemen to help resolve safety-related disputes with management,” Oppegard said.
“The right to refuse unsafe work is the coal miner’s ultimate way to protect his safety when faced with intolerable working conditions,” he said. “But that right is meaningless if the miner doesn’t have a knowledgeable attorney who is willing to advocate and fight for him.”
Fetty, 30, is no stranger to fighting coal companies. While still a student at West Virginia Wesleyan College, he worked for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. He continued that work after graduating, serving the coalition as both a lobbyist and grass-roots organizer.
While attending West Virginia University’s College of Law, Fetty worked with the Appalachian Center, representing citizens and conservation organizations in pollution litigation.
Fetty’s interest in public interest law began while he worked for the Rivers Coalition, and only grew during his previous stint with the Appalachian Center.
“I just saw a lot of need for public interest law, and a need for people to do that sort of work, especially as it relates to the coal industry,” he said. “I felt like without a law degree I was just beating my head against the wall.”
Fetty’s work will be funded by a fellowship from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, a project of the New York-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Skadden’s program, described as a “legal Peace Corps,” provides one-year fellowships — with an expectation of renewal for a second year — to provide legal services for the poor, the elderly, the homeless and disabled, and to those deprived of their civil or human rights.
Fetty modeled his project after the Mine Safety Project in Kentucky, which was recently revived by Wes Addington at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, Ky.
In one case finalized in 2006, Addington helped win back pay and a $10,000 civil penalty from a Kentucky operator who had fired four workers for complaining about unsafe conditions and bad brakes on a coal scoop.
Fetty says he’s going to focus on discrimination cases, but also will follow the implementation of new mine safety rules and could challenge any government delays. Short of filing lawsuits, Fetty also hopes to help miners understand their legal safety rights more clearly.
Investigations at the Sago Mine, Fetty said, showed how poor enforcement and failure to follow through on tough regulations could cost miners their lives.
“It seems like there was a wholesale failure on the part of the regulatory scheme,” he said. “It was a disaster from top to bottom. There were so many things that went wrong that shouldn’t have gone wrong.”
Fetty will not, however, handle cases for miners who have been injured in workplace accidents.
There are many skilled and dedicated lawyers helping miners who have been injured at work,” he said. “We’re doing something a little different — that is, we hope to help coal miners before tragedy strikes.”
At the Appalachian Center, Fetty will bring a new twist to that Lewisburg-based organization.
“Until now, the Appalachian Center’s work has focused on environmental issues associated with coal mining in the region,” said Joe Lovett, the center’s executive director. “The center is proud to sponsor the Mine Safety Project because Mr. Fetty’s work will help to broaden the Appalachian Center’s efforts to promote a just and sustainable economy in West Virginia’s coal-producing counties.”
Coal miners who need the Mine Safety Project’s help can call (304) 472-2044, write to P.O. Box 2260, Buckhannon, WV 26201, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.