Energy industry misuses the name of God for all things deadly and destructive it causes
By Michael M. Barrick
“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
LENOIR, N.C. – The deaths of three coal miners in the central Appalachian coal fields in just the first three weeks of January has led the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) to issue a Call to Safety to coal operators and miners. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main recently issued that call, asserting, “This recent rash of fatal accidents is a WAKE UP CALL to the nation’s miners to take notice and take care of themselves.”
He added, “ … the Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to ramp up its targeted enforcement, education and outreach efforts to respond to the troubling number of mining fatalities that have occurred so far this year. Today, MSHA widely disseminated to industry stakeholders an alert on these deaths, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance in miner safety and health.”
The three deaths have occurred in underground mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.” – Michael Iafrate with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Dead miners are more than statistics
It might be easy to dismiss these deaths as mere statistics since MSHA does not list the miners’ names in the MSHA news release, but that would be a disservice to their work and the loss felt by their families, friends and communities.
In Clear Fork, W.Va., the family and friends of Peter “Pete” D. Sprouse know the pain and loss suffered by thousands before them. The 53-year-old miner died on Jan. 4 when he became entangled in a moving underground conveyer at the Lower War Eagle mine in Wyoming County, in the state’s southern coalfields. The mine is owned by Coronado Coal, LLC. According to a newspaper report of his passing, Sprouse leaves behind a wife of 33 years, two children and their spouses, four grandsons, seven siblings and other relatives and friends. He also leaves behind a zest for life that included riding motorcycles and boating.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Jeremy R. Neice, 31, of Danville, W.Va. died in a mining accident in Greene County, Pa. He was working in the 4 West Mine owned by GenPower Holdings, LP. Neice, who is seen smiling as he leans against his truck in a photograph from his Facebook page, was the second fatality in that mine in just six months. In July 2015, John M. Kelly, 55 of Albright, W.Va. died in an accident.
Just three days after Neice died in Pennsylvania, Nathan G. Phillips, 36, of White Plains, Ky., died at Dotiki Mine in Webster County, in the western region of the state. That mine is owned by Alliance Resource Partners, LP.
How many lives have been forever changed by the passing of these men? These deaths – like all of those before them in the coalfields of Appalachia – cast shadows that can last generations. Four little boys will never again sit on their grandfather’s lap; a young man will never get to enjoy a day in the woods with his buddies, and now his buddies will only be able to toast his memory; the sunrises and sunsets of western Kentucky will now be absent a soul dear to family and friends.
The ‘Act of God’ defense
While coal operators have expressed the customary sympathy to the families, that doesn’t mean that the coal industry – and indeed the entire energy extraction industry – will quit misusing the name of God in the event of such tragedies. The claim that such deaths are “An Act of God” is as old as the industry itself, and has been an excuse offered by the likes of Don Blankenship for recent disasters such at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners.
Now operators might say that, in these three cases, they have expressed condolences and are conducting safety reviews. Of course they’re doing the latter; it is required of them. As for the condolences, that is what PR departments are for. None of this changes the fundamental truth, however, that it is the attitude of energy industry officials that they exercise a sort of “divine right” dominion over Appalachia’s land and people.
Whatever industry officials might say, these recent coal mining deaths are not “Acts of God.” Rather, they are acts of greed by coal operators, desperately compromising worker safety because they’ve invested in a commodity that is outdated.
Now, it might seem unfair to hold businessmen to a biblical standard. They’re not preachers after all. Yet, it is clear these industry officials believe in God – as Blankenship has proven. He is not alone. Gas companies blame cancer deaths and other health problems in the fracking fields on God. I have read such documents addressed to families where they refer to “Acts of God” as causing death and destruction for which the industry is clearly responsible. There is no question that the industry does not hesitate to use God to justify their greed. Last year, Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).
In short, from their own mouths, we hear that industry officials believe in God – when it is convenient. So, it would be beneficial for them to reflect upon Exodus 20:7, which says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.” If industry leaders were honest with themselves and with us, and would accept their responsibility rather than hiding behind the “Act of God” hoax, there would be far less death and destruction in Appalachia.
Indeed, in “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape us,” a recently-released “People’s Pastoral” by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, the document’s author, Michael Iafrate, alluded to stories told by coalfield residents of death and destruction, and observed, “These tragedies and others, deemed ‘acts of God’ by industry, are fresh in our mind in Appalachia.”
Asked if he thought that calling man-made tragedies “Acts of God” was a misuse of Scripture, Iafrate answered, “Yes.” He continued, “It is a more direct violation than when we think of swearing for example. Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.”
In the “Call to Safety,” MSHA Director Main concluded, “In light of current market conditions, we all need to be mindful that safety and health protections necessary to protect our nation’s miners need to be in place every day at every coal mine in the country. All miners deserve to work their shifts and return home at the end of the day, safe and healthy.”
Theological arguments aside, it would seem that everyone could agree with his statement. However, based on the first three weeks of January, it seems pretty clear that coal operators will dismiss it. As these tragedies continue, Blankenship and his ilk will continue to blame God. It’s worked for them for a century, so why stop now?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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