West Virginia’s Political Culture Caused it, and Nothing has Changed in 50 Years
LOGAN, W.Va. – Fifty years ago tomorrow, residents in Logan County along Buffalo Creek awoke to the sound of death sweeping down the narrow valley which they called home. In that half century, nothing has changed in the coal industry and political culture in Charleston. The political culture of maintaining business as usual, even when it causes death and destruction, remains in place. One need look no further than Joe Manchin to understand that.
At 8:05 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1972, 125 West Virginians died when the Buffalo Creek Mining Company waste containment pond dam burst at the head of Buffalo Creek, releasing 135 million gallons of water, sludge and mud to form a 30-foot high wall of debris that rushed through the valley below. In addition to the dead, several thousand people were displaced and approximately 1,000 homes were destroyed.
While I was only 15 at the time, I remember it well. That is because on the next day, a Sunday, the youngest priest in our parish – Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Clarksburg, W.Va. – did not mince words in his homily. He unapologetically launched into a stinging criticism of the coal industry and state officials, who he considered complicit in the tragedy. His homily drove a wedge not only in the parish, but in many families. As an idealistic teenager, I found myself at odds with my dad, who was not pleased that the priest had used Mass to speak to a current event – especially in Coal Country. He and my mom had quite a donnybrook that afternoon after Mass. That they did was not surprising; dad had a business perspective, mom a social justice point-of-view.
I remained quiet, but it was at that moment that I began to question the propaganda of the coal industry. I don’t question it anymore. Nothing teaches like experience.
Six or seven years after the tragedy, Sarah and I were visiting another priest and close family friend who was stationed in Logan at the time. He took us on a “tour” of the area. Evidence of the devastation remained, and old mining houses with families living in abject poverty lined the dirt roads. I recall thinking that once the TV cameras and reporters with their notepads left the tragic scene, the State and coal industry returned to business as usual.
The most stinging example of adding insult to injury is the unholy alliance between Mountain State politicians and the coal industry. While the State had sued Pittston for $100 million to recover the costs of the disaster, Governor Arch Moore – who eventually went to prison on five felony counts related to two political campaigns – accepted a mere $1 million settlement. Today, we have Joe Manchin lining his and his family’s pockets with his influence peddling for the coal industry.
So, the tragedies continue, including one just 12 years ago at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine.
Just as miners were changing shifts that early spring afternoon in 2010 at the UBB coal mine, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.
Clearly, since technology has improved to the point that major mining disasters simply need not happen, the problem is not with the science of deep mining; it is with the political culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.
What happened at Upper Big Branch
This was the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.
In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history at Monongah in 1907 to Upper Big Branch and dozens of disaster in between and since, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2022. Photos from the online West Virginia encyclopedia, e-WV.