Many West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was 110 years ago today that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred in the small mining town of Monongah in northern West Virginia.
On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.
The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.
There is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, ‘a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.’
Such human tragedy, unfortunately, has left many lessons unlearned. In fact, it suggests that a vast majority of West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome.
That was made abundantly clear yesterday with the report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that “Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has officially filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.” Yes, that’s the same Don Blankenship that got by with murder, as I wrote here about the 29 coal miners that died in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster on April 5, 2010. He is out of prison from his paltry one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.
The timing of his filing is beyond ironic; it is downright contemptible.
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 culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.
West Virginians and the Stockholm Syndrome
Unfortunately, it is just not industrialist and politicians who are to blame; so too are many West Virginians. They simply vote against their own interests. It would not surprise me if Blankenship wins the Republican primary and defeats the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin III. Regardless of how the campaign plays out, there is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
This notion was recently shared with me by a very frustrated mayor in a small West Virginia town long-ago abandoned by the coal companies, leaving behind a dying community and destroyed landscape in a once-beautiful valley carved out by numerous rivers. One might take issue with the mayor’s claim, which is based on his disgust with the overwhelming support that West Virginia voters gave President Trump and Governor Jim Justice, who this past summer switched to the Republican Party after being elected as a Democrat last year. Justice is also the state’s only billionaire.
What is not debatable, however, is the deadly history of the coal industry in West Virginia. That Blankenship has the audacity to file for office, exactly 110 years after the Monongah tragedy, suggests that West Virginia is full of people essentially saying, “Abuse me. Please.”
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, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, 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.”
At Monongah, both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).
Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment.
When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116).
Blaming the Victims
Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “… he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).
Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (McAteer 159)
Tragedy upon Tragedy
There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).
It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (McAteer 131).
Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (McAteer 143).
An Unholy Alliance
Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.
Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).
Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).
So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued – and does to this day. For proof, we need look no further than the UBB disaster.
We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 110 years ago, and upon those of Upper Big Branch, Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Blair Mountain, and countless other communities since, we must conclude that we have not.
This should give us pause. The West Virginia state motto is Montani Semper Liberi – “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Though they may think they are, they are mistaken. In reality, my friend the mayor is right. The proud people of the Mountain State are not free; rather, as the Stockholm Syndrome illustrates, they “identify closely” with their crony capitalist captors and their demands.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017. Michael M. Barrick is a native of Clarksburg, W.Va. He has lived also in Weston and Alum Bridge. He presently writes from his home in Western North Carolina, but continues to visit and work in his home state.
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).
Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).
The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).
Fellow students respond favorably to comic strip about Mountaintop Removal
Editor’s note: On Dec. 1 we published an article about Olivia Bouzigard’s efforts to educate herself and others at Appalachian State University about the deadly impact of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I asked her to write an essay explaining how she chose the topic and method for teaching it. She explains below. Personally, I extend thanks to her instructor, Heather Custer, who has the rare ability to challenge her students to demonstrate evidence of minds at work. Also, the illustration is published again, just in case you missed it the first time. – MB
By Olivia Bouzigard
BOONE, N.C. – I am a sophomore at Appalachian State University (ASU) with a major in Public Relations and minors in Recreational Management and Philosophy. I am currently enrolled in a writing class where I was to take on the task of writing about an issue that I thought was important. When I came to ASU as a first year student, I was enrolled in a recreational management class where I learned about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This was the issue that I chose to write about.
The first part of the project dealt with composing a white paper of the research that I had done. I interviewed several people, read books, watched a documentary and read through health studies people had researched about MTR. Finally, the second part of the project was to come up with another way to present this information. I chose to make a comic strip that combined all my research together into three simple illustrations. Then as part of the project’s requirements we had to somehow present this information. I chose to set up a contact table in the student union on campus and ask people for their time as I passed out my comic and taught them about MTR.
Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.
As students passed by the table I would stop them to ask if I could have a few minutes of their time. For those who said yes, I followed with the simple question: Do you know what Mountaintop Removal is? Those who said they did, I asked how they knew what it was and asked them to give me a description. Many said they had learned about it at ASU or in a class in high school, which I thought was interesting.
I then asked them to give a brief description of what they knew about MTR. One student responded, “It has to do with our energy and stuff, right?” Another student said, “I know that it is bad.” However, no one could give me an overall quick description of it. A key goal of my project was to help students to be able to quickly define it, so in the comic strip, I start off with a definition of MTR from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those who said they did not know what mountaintop removal was, that definition is the one I used.
I then explained the comic to the students that stopped by. I shared that the mountain is upset because it has no say in whether it is destroyed or not. Coal companies are known for coming in quickly, destroying the area, and then quickly leaving. Their focus is only on the coal and nothing else. Then the comic moves into air that is upset and lungs that are upset. The purpose of this drawing is because many people are breathing in the particles from the removal sites and do not realize it, so their lungs become damaged. The final picture shows a sad house, a sad human and an angry crane. This illustrates that MTR not only devastates the mountains but devastates the towns and ruins them. It also is illustrating that the people of these towns have no say in whether these coal companies come and they just wait for them to leave. The angry crane shows that the coal company is just there to get the job done and leave.
Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.
After presenting the comic to students, I asked if it was helpful. Everyone said yes. Comments included that they now know what it is. There were many comments of gratitude for sharing the information and acknowledgements that MTR is a significant public health and environmental issue.
Still, I am not done. I know that people have spent lifetimes learning about opposing MTR, so I intend to continue to educate myself about MTR, keeping others informed and finding alternatives. The comic strip was a first, but very powerful step for me and those I taught.
© Olivia Bouzigard, 2017.
MTR photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. To learn more about their work, visit their website.
A mind at work inspired research and response
By Michael M. Barrick
BOONE, N.C. – In late October, a professor at Appalachian State University (ASU) reached out to me because she had a student that wanted to learn more about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I immediately contacted the student, and within two weeks we were meeting at a coffee shop in Boone.
Olivia Bouzigard, a graduate of a high school in Raleigh, N.C., confided to me that until she enrolled at ASU, she had never heard of MTR. So, prior to and following our meeting, I sent her links and information about people and organizations in Appalachia – in particularly West Virginia – that were fighting to end MTR because of its deadly effects on people and the destruction it caused to vital ecosystems and watersheds.
I was impressed even before I met her, as our email exchanges revealed evidence of a mind at work. When I finally met Olivia, her interest and concern were clear. I don’t keep track of time well, so I don’t know how long we met, but it wasn’t long enough to tell her everything she needed to know. It didn’t matter. From that meeting, Olivia ran with it.
What is impressive about her interest is that MTR is not really relevant to her major. She just cared. So, the other – and perhaps most important thing that impressed me about Olivia – is that she defied the stereotype that I hear from far too many people – that the current college-aged generation is self-absorbed.
As I traveled down the mountain back home from our meeting, I wasn’t sure what Olivia would do with her new knowledge and interest, but I was confident she would do something. Oh my, did she ever. The comic above says more in five simple illustrations than the thousands of words I have written about MTR. Most noteworthy is that she is using the comic to educate her fellow students at ASU.
So to Olivia and her like-minded peers, I say, Bravo! Thank you for caring about the poor and vulnerable. Thank you for caring for the environment. Thank you for looking beyond your own concerns to the needs of others. Thank you for being creative. Finally, thank you for challenging people of all ages to educate themselves about MTR and other assaults upon Appalachia and all of the sacred earth which sustains us.
Finally, thank you for giving me hope about the future. When I was teaching, I always challenged my students with this guiding tenet: Every day, all that I ask is that I see evidence of minds at work. With Olivia, that is exactly what I experienced.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017. “Classic Mountaintop Removal” comic, © Olivia Bouzigard, 2017
Mining site on Coal River Mountain has pattern of violations
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) ordered Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary Republic Energy to show cause why a mountaintop removal coal mine permit on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County should not be suspended or revoked. The order was issued on Aug. 1. Republic has 30 days to request a hearing or a consent order; otherwise, the permit will be suspended or revoked or its bond forfeited.
Republic has received seven notices of violation at its 802-acre Middle Ridge permit since July 25, 2016. Three or more of the same type of violation within a year demonstrate a pattern of violations and initiate the “show cause” procedure.
Alpha subsidiaries operate over ten square miles of active, approved or pending mountaintop removal sites and coal waste slurry impoundments on Coal River Mountain. Local citizens group Coal River Mountain Watch has opposed the operations because of the documented public health impacts of mountaintop removal, including significantly elevated rates of cancer, heart disease, birth defects and other deadly illnesses. Mountaintop removal also causes long-term pollution of mountain streams and the loss of access to the mountain for traditional activities including hiking, hunting, and gathering ginseng, berries, mushrooms, ramps and other forest resources. Increased runoff from the deforested sites and altered topography can also contribute to flooding.
Four of the seven notices of violation on Republic’s Middle Ridge permit were for sediment control violations related to improperly constructed ditches and sediment ditch failure. Citizen complaints generated two of the sediment control citations.
“This isn’t rocket science. It’s a ditch. If Alpha can’t even properly maintain a ditch, why should we expect them to comply with any of the other regulations and permit conditions meant to protect water quality and nearby residents and property owners,” asked Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch.
Local residents with Coal River Mountain Watch plan to continue pushing for the permanent revocation of the Middle Ridge permit, protection for Coal River Mountain and surrounding communities, and a strong, sustainable economy for southern West Virginia.
“The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection needs to start living up to their name and their mission of promoting a healthy environment in West Virginia,” Haltom said. “Instead, they continue to grant mountaintop removal permits knowing full well that these operations will cause long-term water pollution, serious harm to the health of people in our communities, and damage to the long-term viability of our economy.”
Coal River Mountain Watch of Naoma, W.Va., has a mission to stop the destruction of our communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life in our area, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The website ishttp://crmw.net.
Show cause order: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B87Y5QG4Eg0Xa211WUJEV2YxRWc
Republic Energy permits on Coal River Mountain: https://apps.dep.wv.gov/WebApp/_dep/search/Permits/RP_PermitQuery_new.cfm?office=OMR
National Academy of Sciences to hold forum in Logan to examine impact of MTR on human health
LOGAN, W.Va. – Three citizens’ groups that for decades have called for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining are urging their members and concerned citizens to speak up on the human health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining during a May 23 town hall meeting hosted by a study committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
As reported in the Charleston Gazette in August, 2016, the committee is charged with examining “a ‘growing amount of academic research’ that suggests ‘possible correlations’ between increased public health risks for Appalachian residents and living near mountaintop removal coal mining.”
The May 23 meeting is the second meeting of the committee as it seeks public input. It takes place at the Chief Logan Lodge, Hotel and Conference Center, 1000 Conference Center Drive here. The committee is to examine the potential human effects of surface coal mining operations in Central Appalachia. Citizens commonly refer to all large surface coal mines as mountaintop removal operations.
The meeting consists of two parts, beginning at 12:35 p.m. with an “open session” where panelists will make presentations to the committee. If registered in advance, the public will be able to attend, but not ask questions during the open session, which ends at 4 p.m. The deadline to register in advance was Friday, May 19.
The Town Hall forum at 6:30 requires no RSVP; opportunities to speak to the committee (3 minutes each) will be reserved at a first-come, first-serve basis. Please show up early to get your place in line!
Panels include one with representatives of state agencies and one with coal industry representatives. Also on a panel are representatives of the three groups urging their members to speak up—Coal River Mountain Watch, OVEC (the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition), and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
The second part of the meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. with a “town hall forum,” held, according to NAS, to “gain insights and information from people living in the surrounding communities. The National Academies study committee invites community members to attend and share their perspectives on this topic. The focus of the study is people living near coal-mining areas rather than on occupational health of coal mine workers.”
Later in the summer, meetings will be held in other states. People may also comment online.
“Mountaintop removal has ravaged the health of our communities for far too long,” says Coal River Mountain Watch executive director Vernon Haltom. “Enough solid science now tells us what common sense has told us for years: that breathing the fine, glassy silica dust from mountaintop removal sites is hazardous to our health. This ongoing practice needs to end now, and we hope the NAS committee comes to that conclusion for the sake of public health.”
“A serious review of the dozens of health studies that have been conducted this past decade is long overdue and much appreciated,” says Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “We encourage the National Academies team to listen carefully to the community voices whose stories and fears will impress upon you the importance and urgency of your review and recommendations.”
Haltom and Rank are two of the environmental group panelists. They will be joined by Natalie Thompson, OVEC’s executive director.
“The blasting, the worry about the next flood, the loss of your homeplace and community, these and more take a heavy toll on health,” says Vivian Stockman, OVEC’s vice director. “The NAS committee is asking to hear from the public – unlike so many politicians – so please come tell them what you know about what mountaintop removal does to your health and wellbeing.”
People living near mountaintop removal operations have long claimed that this extreme method of coal mining is making them sick. In 2004, for the draft environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal /valley fill coal mining (MTR), citizen groups compiled people’s statements about their health and wellbeing and MTR.
As the movement to end mountaintop removal grew, people’s demands that the health concerns be addressed grew, too. While politicians kept their heads in the sand, research accumulated, corroborating what residents were (and still are) saying: MTR is really bad for human health.
People have pushed copies of all the studies into politician’s hands, in Charleston and in D.C. Folks have educated one another. Legislation, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) Act, has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. Rallies have been held. One of them, The People’s Foot, finally struck a chord. According to the Charleston Gazette, “The federal scientific effort also comes after West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman surprised citizen groups in March 2015—on the eve of a protest planned at his agency’s headquarters—by publicly saying that the health studies needed to be more closely examined by regulators, and the commitment less than a week later by Huffman and state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta for a review of the issue.”
The NAS study wasn’t formally announced until 2016. News articles noted that the study came at the request of the WV DEP. It was citizen pressure that brought DEP to finally make that request.
We urge citizens to keep up the citizen pressure. Come out May 23 in Logan, or come to one of the other upcoming meetings in other states, or send in comments.
For additional information, contact:
His shameless contempt for working people is business as usual in West Virginia
By Michael M. Barrick
I was with my uncle once when he was appealing a local property tax assessment. He was told that he had the right to appeal, but that the appeals board could, if it wanted, actually raise his taxes if they deemed it appropriate. They could also uphold it, or reduce it, but that initial caveat was enough to give pause.
It’s too bad that isn’t the scenario faced by Don Blankenship as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He just recently completed his paltry one-year prison sentence for that conviction, which was based on charges after 29 coal miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy. Blankenship was its CEO and court testimony revealed that he was intimately involved in the conscious efforts to violate mine safety standards – violations that eventually led to the explosion that killed the UBB miners. These facts were supported by the “Report to the Governor” by the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel. It characterized the April 5, 2010, explosion: as “ … a failure of basic coal mine safety practices.”
So, if there was justice in this country, Blankenship could appeal, but would face these options, as did my uncle:
- Conviction upheld
- Conviction overturned
- Conviction upheld, and the judges rule that the one-year sentence was a perversion of justice and that Blankenship is to immediately be returned to prison for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately only the first two options are available. So, the families of those killed at UBB are again subjected to another news cycle of Don Blankenship pretending he is not only innocent, but as he wrote in his little pamphlet after his conviction, “An American Political Prisoner.”
Meanwhile, surviving family members of the UBB tragedy are unwilling prisoners to the memories of their lost loved ones, for that and photographs is all that is left of them.
This, sadly, is too typical of the stories out of West Virginia. Don Blankenship got by with murder. His self-published book is infuriating; his continuing denials and appeals nauseating.
The state of West Virginia is the poster child for the horribly negative effects upon working class people by crony capitalists. This is not news. Sadly, to a large extent, the people of the Mountain State have brought this upon ourselves. We elect people to office who not only refuse to ensure proper laws and regulations are in place to protect miners and all of the state’s workers, but also instead roll them back.
The discovery of coal, gas and oil throughout the state in the 19th century led to an unholy alliance among industrialists and politicians; to this day, it continues to subjugate the people of West Virginia for its own personal profit. The judiciary is next to useless, as it is full of minions financed by – you guessed it – Blankenship. The new governor, Jim Justice, not only has a record of ignoring and delaying payment of fines for his own mining operations, he is the state’s richest man. He talks the game, but his record suggests that his preferential concern is for his cronies, not his constituents.
Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is known throughout the state as the “Department of Everything Permitted.” And, that was before Justice purged it of previous top officials who were constantly criticized by environmental and public health advocates. In comparative hindsight, they were true champions of the people. So, despite the evidence of extreme threats to public health and the environment, Mountaintop Removal permits are rubber-stamped by DEP, despite the best efforts of citizens and environmental groups such as Coal Mountain Watch, OVEC, and countless others.
Meanwhile, anyone attending the various meetings for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has witnessed the collusion among industry, politicians and law enforcement, in scenes reminiscent of the West Virginia Mine Wars when private detectives and local cops worked for the coal companies. At one meeting in Jackson’s Mill in 2014, I saw several hundred residents – some who had driven more than two hours over the state’s winding roads – leave in total disgust. They saw that the cards had been stacked against them before they walked through the door. What had been billed by industry officials as a “town hall” was really an opportunity to spew forth propaganda. They aligned themselves as if at a trade show. There was absolutely no opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a public forum that would have allowed for give-and-take. The gas company knows how to silence citizens. But just in case they failed, standing outside were several county deputies dressed in full riot gear.
The message was delivered loud and clear: We’re in charge, this is a show, and there is nothing you can do about it.
It is this absolute control of West Virginia’s economy and political system by the fossil fuel industry that allows them to be disdainful of the people of West Virginia – and to cause Don Blankenship to delude himself into thinking he’s a political prisoner. The truth is, he is simply another fat cat conducting business as usual in West Virginia, and getting by with murder in the process.
West Virginia’s state motto is “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”
Well, we aren’t. In fact, it is we, not Don Blankenship, which are the political prisoners. If only we had the fight in us that Blankenship has. How long will we be prostrate at the feet of the likes of Blankenship?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
On Twitter: @appchronicle
To receive a PDF of the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel on the UBB disaster, send an email to email@example.com
On behalf of all West Virginians, I challenge you to serve the people, not your cronies in the fossil fuel industry
By S. Tom Bond
Note: I have penned the following Open Letter to Governor Jim Justice and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton; I encourage you to do the same or join us in signing this by contacting the Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance at MLPAWV@gmail.com or use the contact page.
Editor’s note: Both Justice and Caperton have long careers as energy company executives and have records’ – including recent firings at WV DEP – that the state’s environmental groups find counter to the DEP mission as does the Charleston Gazette-Mail. To get a sense of how things operate in Charleston, read this admission by former DEP Secretary Randy Huffman that the DEP is compromised by crony capitalism.
Dear Governor Justice and Secretary Caperton:
How is the air down there in Charleston? Still clean? Do you plan to move out into the country near some of the new Marcellus drilling industry? Maybe near a compressor station with eleven of those big engines, roaring and belching 24 hours a day?
Or perhaps near a well pad where there is 24 hour light and noise and chemicals and diesel smoke with lots of PM-2.5 coming out the exhaust. Particulate matter 2.5 microns or less is now known as a cause of Alzheimer’s-like effects, you know. Going to bring along your grandchildren and your Mom along? Families like that live out here, and the young and the old are particularly susceptible to toxic chemicals, smoke, fumes, and dust.
Maybe you are like the famous story on Rex Tillerson, who has inflicted that kind of misery on many thousands of people. Then he complained when a water tower to enable fracking was erected in sight of his own piece of earth.
Do you think those who drink water without the taste of chlorine shouldn’t complain when their well is poisoned with a complex mixture of water slickers, detergents, and anti-oxidants, antibacterial compounds, and God-only-knows what else? Maybe they deserve car-busting roads and interminable delays when they use public roads too?
I can see you demurring all the way from here. I think that you are like Rex Tillerson, the ultimate not-in-my-back-yard guy!
So you are going to govern the state for all the people. For all the people of West Virginia – like John J. Cornwell was governing West Virginia for all the people, including the miners, at the time of the battle of Matewan? Oh yes! Those corporations provided good living for officers and investors, but not miners. It’s been like that since West Virginia was established. Wealth carried off, mostly north and east, but occasionally to build a motel in Florida.
So I’m being a little hard on you. You are just doing it to bring jobs, jobs, jobs, you say? You do realize gas and oil extraction are capital intensive and labor weak, don’t you? That once the drilling is done by those fellows brought in from elsewhere, they will go away and leave few permanent jobs? You certainly know several companies are developing automated drilling, so drilling labor will go the way of coal labor, too.
Oh yes! Obama killed coal the fable says. You really know better than that, don’t you? Coal companies, going to more mechanization, especially long wall and surface mining that can use huge equipment, killed coal jobs. That Obama fable was a tool, using prejudice and diversion of the truth, to affect voters who were slow to catch on.
What moral code do you have that allows collateral damage to rural residents in peacetime to profit private industry? Forget for the moment all the externalized costs, the true cost of the extraction, the damage to other industries, global warming, destruction of surface value for farming and timber, recreation and hunting. What justifies forest destruction, land disturbances, public annoyances, and public health for fossil fuel extraction? Especially when last year 39 percent of new electrical capacity was solar and 29 percent was wind power. (Coal has been showing a decrease for the last two years.) There is no CO2 from the renewable resources!
How do you decide people are unworthy of protection? Simply because of rural residence? Those who can’t afford to move elsewhere, or too attached to the family plot?
Hey guys, people out here are probably more astute than you think. Some of us don’t think very far ahead, and few are articulate, but, given time, it all becomes too clear.
West Virginia has the highest rate at losing population in the nation. We have the lowest ratio of employment to employable people in the nation. College kids have been heading for the door, and so are a lot of high school grads.
Is corrupting the environment and allowing the wealth of our state to be carted off by favored industries your best game? That is the past, present (and future?) of Almost Heaven! We country folks keep hoping for better!
S. Thomas Bond is an eighth generation West Virginian writing from his farm in Jane Lew, W.Va. He is a farmer and retired chemistry professor. He is interviewed in Keely Kernan’s Documentary Film, “In the Hills and Hollows,” which is about the impacts of the fossil fuel industry in West Virginia.
Postscript: Please note the irony of the slide show of beautiful West Virginia scenery on the governor’s website. Let’s not let him have a pass on using the state’s natural beauty to disguise the extreme damage he has done to the people, environment and legal system of West Virginia. – M.B.
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The Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment
By Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. – During this presidential campaign, a light is being shined on the way corporate and other wealthy donors influence the political process. We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics. During this month of the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is important, too, to see the corrupting influence of coal money on our churches.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have been admirably engaged in the work of charity in the state of West Virginia. Yet, they have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.
For example, the takeaway from the Bishop’s pastoral letter on mine safety, issued after Upper Big Branch, was that the tragedy “raises concerns.” But the coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.”
Whether faced with the coal industry’s repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages or the ongoing devastating stories from communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, the Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment. Even after the release of Pope Francis’ powerful ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Bransfield downplayed its message for West Virginia, promoting instead the myth of “clean coal.” And the Diocese has yet to make any comments about the dangers of fracking which increasingly affects people in West Virginia. Why is this?
People of faith in Appalachia often suspect that dirty money from the fossil fuel industries compromises the church’s prophetic voice. Pope Francis has spoken about the corrupting influence of “dirty money,” saying, “I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.”
We must ask about the relevance of Francis’ words for the church in West Virginia, as it in fact has financial ties to the coal industry. Diocesan officials have stated publicly that the church draws money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments,” but will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general, and one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council is a former lobbyist for the National Coal Association. In 2008, according to multiple sources, Bransfield gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, W.Va. to accept charitable gifts from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, including the funding of a brand-new gymnasium for the school, brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.
One would think that after Upper Big Branch the church might be more reluctant to accept any more dirty money from coal barons. Yet, Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County in 2013 funded by a donation from mine owner Jim Justice, whose mines have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety, and environmental violations and for failure to pay various debts and taxes.
People like Justice and Blankenship give monetary gifts to the church to improve their community standing. For precisely this reason, Blankenship’s charitable activity was cited in over one hundred letters to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asking for more leniency in the lead-up to his sentencing.
Despite its continued economic decline, Big Coal wants a return on their investment in the church. What kind of return are they getting? A diocesan spokesperson told me that the church opposes the abuses of the fossil fuel industries, such as mountaintop removal and the abuse of workers, but that it does so “quietly” because “banging a drum” about it would “not be prudent.” But what is the value of opposition that is not made public?
Such responses suggest that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them strongly and in public. When church leaders consistently accept money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching the church might offer in defense of workers or of Earth’s ecological integrity.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have … have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.”– Michael J. Iafrate
Many West Virginia Catholics would like to see their leaders boldly choose the side of justice and to “let justice speak loudly,” as the Appalachian Catholic bishops put it in their 1975 pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” We do not expect the church to call for an immediate end of the coal industry, even as we transition to more diverse, life-giving economies. But we insist that the church must do better at denouncing—without ambiguity—this industry’s abuses.
Specifically, is it too much to wish that Bransfield condemn mountaintop removal and fracking and to apologize for promoting the lie of clean coal? Shouldn’t he promote clearly the church’s teaching on workers’ rights and oppose the continued attack on those rights that we saw in West Virginia’s recent legislative session, especially in the passing of the Right to Work bill? (The brief, vague diocesan statement issued on the legislation will not do). Might we expect him to join so many others explicitly calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mining regulations?
To do any of this, however, the church must be free of the corrupting influence of the coal industry’s financial gifts. On this anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the Diocese should exercise financial transparency and make a clear commitment to refuse the financial benefits of a destructive, death-dealing industry. As Pope Francis has said, we don’t need their dirty money.
[This is a shorter, edited version of a longer piece first published at Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2016.]
© Michael J. Iafrate, 2016.
Michael J. Iafrate writes from Wheeling, W.Va. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
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West Virginia chapter of Catholic Committee of Appalachia calls coal mining CEO’s trial ‘emblematic of the larger systemic disregard for human life and dignity in Appalachia’
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On April 5, 2010, just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working in the mine for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.
Six years and a day after that avoidable tragedy, the misery continued for families of the dead miners, as they watched former Massey CEO Don Blankenship receive only one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, it was the maximum penalty that United States District Judge Irene Berger could impose. In December 2015, after a two-month trial, a jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements.
The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law.” – WV CCA Statement
Consequently, the trial’s outcome – both verdict and sentencing – compelled the West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachian (WVCCA) to release a statement saying they are “outraged.”
In the statement, the WVCCA said it, “ … commends the judgment that Blankenship willfully put his employees in danger, a danger that cost twenty-nine miners their lives at Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010. Still, like many other West Virginians, we are outraged that conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations is categorized merely as a misdemeanor.”
The WVCCA pointed out, “Had he been found guilty of the charges of which he was acquitted – lying to the federal security regulators and lying to his investors – Blankenship would have received a sentence of up to 25 years.” The WVCCA continued, “It is startling that, in our justice system, lying to those who have power in our society is a felony, while taking tragic risks with human life is a misdemeanor. The Blankenship case is another example of low sentences for those who take risks with public safety, a disturbing trend in our state seen also in the lenient sentencing of Freedom Industries executives responsible for the 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia.”
The WVCCA noted that West Virginia’s bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, stresses “the temptation toward ‘maximization of profit’ can lead to a disregard for human beings and their needs and lead to ‘a new kind of powerlessness” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 4).
Indeed, in May 2011, a report affirming that conclusion was released by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) that was convened by former Governor (and now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin. Among the panel’s findings were:
- 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.
At the time of the tragedy, the mine was owned and operated by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. According to the GIIP report, “The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety procedures identified and codified to protect the lives of miners. The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mines. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished” (p. 4). In short, Massey’s safety systems failed and both federal and state inspectors “…did not provide adequate and proper oversight” (p. 4).
Massey’s operating principles included political influence peddling without regard for campaign finance laws. “What is factual and well documented is that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship had a long history of wielding or attempting to wield influence in the state’s seats of government” (p. 85). And, state inspectors knew that UBB was troublesome. Even though the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Training is notoriously understaffed, inspectors considered conditions at UBB so perilous that inspectors were on site at the mine for about 85 days in the year preceding the disaster, and had issued 330 violations totaling nearly $155,000 in penalties.
Inspectors can only do so much, though, asserted the panel. “The state’s failure at Upper Big Branch does not stop with safety issues inside the mine. The inability to protect the lives of miners is also a political failure – a failure by the state’s government to nurture and support strict safety standards for coal miners. If miners’ lives are to be safeguarded, the cozy relationship between high-ranking government officials and the coal industry must change, as must the relationship between the enforcement agency and the industry it regulates” (p. 89).
It added, “…Massey is equally well known for causing incalculable damage to mountains, streams, and air in the coalfields; creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and, battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities” (p. 92). Indeed, for the first decade of this century, Massey had the distinction of having the worst mine safety record in the United States. The 29 killed at UBB brought the company’s total deaths to 54 for the decade.
Even at the time of the disaster, Massey employees seemed to delay in their response. Though the explosion occurred just after 3 p.m., the first call for an ambulance was not made until nearly 4:30. Initially, the mine dispatcher called company officials, who in turn activated their own rescue teams and notified state and federal officials. It was not until the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 13 that all of the miners’ bodies had been recovered.
Blaming it on God
Nobody speaks to the corporate culture which allowed this preventable disaster better than Blankenship. Holding to the theory put forth by Massey that high levels of methane or natural gas just suddenly burst in through the mine’s floor (despite evidence to the contrary), he coldly said to the National Press Club on July 22, 2010 – less than three months following the accident – “The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again. You won’t hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents in society” (p. 70). Yet, 94 years previously, Coal Age magazine asserted, “The next time you are about to say, ‘Accidents will happen,’ stop and think first; then you won’t say it. Only weaklings and incompetents evade responsibilities in this age of industrial safety and efficiency” (p. 74).
Or, as the WVCCA said, “ … as we noted in our recent pastoral letter, ‘Coal industry villains come and go, but the attitude which places profit above safety is deeply embedded in the coal economy.’”
The WVCCA concluded, “The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law. We, again, join our bishop in saying ‘The Church has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity is protected. This is an essential part of proclaiming the Gospel of Life’” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 5).
The day after his sentencing, Blankenship filed a notice of appeal of his case to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Of course, the dead miners and their families have nowhere that they can file a notice of appeal to reverse the course their lives took six years ago. But that is justice in Appalachia.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responds to petition from the Center for Biological Diversity
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected two species of crayfish from Appalachia under the Endangered Species Act. The crayfishes have been lost from more than half of their ranges because of water pollution, primarily from coal mining. The Big Sandy crayfish is known only from the Big Sandy River basin in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia; the Guyandotte River crayfish is known only from the Guyandotte River basin in southern West Virginia.
“Protecting these two crayfishes under the Endangered Species Act will not only ensure their survival but will also protect streams and water quality that are important for people,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center and a native of southeastern Kentucky.
The Center and regional allies petitioned to protect the Big Sandy crayfish as an endangered species in 2010. The newly discovered Guyandotte River crayfish, which was once thought to be the same as the Big Sandy crayfish but was recently discovered to be a new species, is now one of the most endangered crayfish in America, surviving only in a single county in West Virginia. Both crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution. The Big Sandy crayfish was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991.
The Big Sandy crayfish is known from Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties in Virginia, and from McDowell and Mingo counties in West Virginia. In Kentucky it is known from Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Pike and Martin counties. The Guyandotte River crayfish was known from Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties, West Virginia, but survives only in Wyoming County. In addition to coal mining, the crayfish are threatened by construction of the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway.
Today’s listing means that federal agencies will have to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before funding or permitting any activity that could harm the animals, and it is now illegal for any person or corporation to harm the crayfishes or their habitat.
Crayfish are also known as crawdads, crawfish, mudbugs and freshwater lobsters. They’re considered to be a keystone animal because the holes they dig create habitat used by other species including fish. Crayfish keep streams cleaner by eating decaying plants and animals, and they are eaten, in turn, by fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, making them an important link in the food web. Because the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution, they are indicator species of water quality.
In 2011 the Center for Biological Diversity entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite protection decisions for 757 imperiled species around the country. To date 146 species have gained protection under the agreement, and another 34 have been proposed for protection.
One of the primary threats to the crayfish is mountaintop removal coal mining. Recent scientific studies have concluded that pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mining is harmful to fish, crayfish, mussels, amphibians and stream insects in Appalachia. Pollution from mountaintop removal is also associated with increased risk of cancer and birth defects in humans. More than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been degraded by this mechanized form of mining, which employs far fewer people than other forms and perpetuates poverty by causing permanent and irreversible damage to the landscape.
Coal field residents and allies are currently promoting the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or ACHE, a federal bill that would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until the federal government has completed and evaluated studies into health disparities in the region.
© The Center for Biological Diversity, 2016. The Center is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 990,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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