Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Coal(d) mines

The clock reads five minutes til the eighth hour of the evening.  Major news organizations (CNN, FoxNews, & MSNBC) barely have a blip about the mining disaster in southern West Virginia last week.  Sadly, this is how the media operates in modern society.  They quickly move to the next "story" with little regard to the fallout of a tragedy such as the incident involving the deaths of 29 miners working for Massey Energy.

Although an investigation is ongoing as to the reason for an explosion that precipitated this disaster, authorities strongly suspect methane gas was not properly ventilated out of the mine, and thus, was somehow ignited.  I cannot pretend to have any idea about what are the proper conditions of a coal mine (or any mine, for that matter), however I have to believe this was a preventable incident.

According to news reports released by CNN and the Associated Press, this particular mine owned and operated by Massey Energy has incurred over 3,000 safety violations since they opened the Upper Big Branch mine in 1995.  Massey Energy has also racked up over $1.5 million in fines due to said violations, yet has not paid them, due to the fact the law allows them approximately two years to contest any penalty levied.  The frustrating thought about this part of legislation is many mining companies (Massey Energy included), probably have an easier time financially paying fines than spending money necessary to keep standards up to government regulations. 

The response to this tragedy is puzzling.  I admire those who live in the general vicinity of the Upper Big Branch mine for their ability to endure, provide for one another, and comfort those who lost loved ones.  Strangely, though, many West Virginians upset me in a way.  I saw facebook riddled with all manner of status updates or invitations asking people to join a group showing support for the miners.  How trite. 

As if some connection existed to West Virginia University existed, I saw multiple people make postings announcing the people of this state now understood the "true meaning of the Final Four," a play on words referencing the search that took place to find four unaccounted for men.  How insulting is it to compare a basketball tournament to the lives of four human beings? 

Others created groups hoping West Virginians would leave their porch lights off (or on, depending upon the group) to honor the miners.  I recently read that West Virginia University's football team will wear a decal on their helmets to honor coal miners.  My curiousity cannot help but wonder what good will any of this do?  How can this possibly help coal miners?  While the gestures are well intended, these will fade away into nothingness. 

If this state wants to honor those who work in a very dangerous profession, then a very real need exists to enforce legislation in existence to compel mining companies to keep their employees as safe as possible.  The Mining Health and Safety Administration (MHSA) should be given wider latitude in the amount of discretion they have in forcing coal mines to comply.  If mine owners are not in compliance, they need to be shut down. 

The actions of coal mine owners sometimes border on the criminal.  Although this profession provides a large number of well paying jobs to our citizens, our miners currently work in a hazardous environment.  This is by no means an endorsement of mountaintop removal (another plague on this state), but underground mines are the responsibility of those who own them (typically absentee landlords).  Corruption exists on numerous levels, including that of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a lightning rod for attention in recent years.  His past is checkered, at best.  Blankenship might best be remembered for his large contributions to the campaign fund of State Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to recuse himself in cases involving Massey Energy. 

Blankenship finds himself under fire yet again, but has defended Massey Energy's safety record compared to other mining companies.  Further investigation must be completed to accurately assess if any blame should placed on him.  Many West Virginians, however, are calling for his head.

Presumably, the people of West Virginia are "up in arms" as we would say, but the reality is we will forget.  A quote from a wife of a coal miner in the area was very telling. She states, "At first, I thought this town would never be the same ... but in a year's time, it might be back to normal.  Everyone will be back to work."  I have no way of knowing the tone of voice she used, but I would speculate it was one of lament.

Our memory is so short that we have already forgotten the Sago Mine disaster in 2006.  I would like to extend some credit to Governor Joe Manchin (not my favorite politican) for how well he has handled this and for his actions today.  He ordered a complete investigation into the safety of all underground mines in the state this Friday, not as a "day off," but as a day simply not to produce coal.  The day would be used to re-evaluate safety in the workplace. 

If people want to honor coal miners or ensure tragedies like this do not happen again, I would make the following suggestions:

1.  Above all else, pray.  God can do what man cannot.
2.  Contact your local representatives in state and federal government.  All citizens can help bring about change through flooding their offices with phone calls, e-mails and letters. 
3.  Take some action to directly help someone affected by this mining disaster. 

As the nation has already forgotten, I am afraid our state will soon forget as well.  Indifference may seep in and we won't be able to remember how cold a spring day in April really was.  I hope I am wrong.


  1. You mentioned all of the unsightly business practices of the Massey Corporation, and I agree. But I can't help but mention that Massey Energy (and its other forms) are on not one, not two, but three plaques in Corbly Hall at Marshall University for their donations to the college of business. Much like the stickers memorializing the lost miners, perhaps the money spent on these mementos should be better placed in better mine safety practices. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  2. Another situation that is puzzling in some ways (ineffective, 'trite' acts of support), infuriating in others (safety violations!!!!), and disappointing in still more (media's instantaneously moving on to 'more interesting' stories like Tiger and his rehab.

    3 for 3 on inciteful, interesting blogs, Don. Thanks for continuing to make us think.

  3. Massey's safety record is atrocious. They are notorious for sacrificing safety for productivity much like nearly every company in the United States. (Many manufacturing firms outsource jobs to other countries because of no safety regulations or enforcement in these countries, thus making it much cheaper and if something were to happen, significantly less media coverage.) While I will never defend Massey's safety record, I can say as a safety technology graduate who has studied and researched mine disasters, that sometimes things like this just happen. Many things can be prevented or hazardous conditions eliminated or at the very least mitigated, but things like the methane explosion are the nature of the beast when dealing with underground mining. A pocket of unknown methane could have been breached or a previously known pocket that had been sealed and vented could have been compromised. This could lead to a chain of events resulting in that large of an explosion in a matter of minutes. I don't say any of this in disrespect to the families, those that perished, or those that continue to enter the mines day after day. I merely hope that we do not jump to any radical conclusions and false accusations until we know the results of the investigation. Most of all, continue to pray daily for those who go to their jobs each day and only want to return home that night. Good article Don

  4. Don,

    another good post. I dunno if i am more sad or more angry. As we look at the idea what should be done i think your post provides a few answers. At least answer of what not to do.

    3000 safety violations in 15 years? When this is the track record I wonder how much difference more legislation would make.

    1.5 million in unpaid fines? I wonder how much difference harsher fines will make.

    I certainly believe we should allow the investigation to be completed, but if it turns out these deaths were the result of safety violations especially ones they have been cited for and ignored.

    If thats the case how about 29 counts of manslaughter?

    enjoy the blog