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
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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 email@example.com. 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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Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides
By Michael M. Barrick
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Readers of this blog know I called into question the independence of the Clarksburg newspaper recently because its president has interests in the natural gas industry and it has rarely, if ever, cast a critical eye on the multiple negative impacts of fracking and natural gas pipeline development. Those who receive my email updates also know that the newspaper’s publisher and editor took exception and wrote an open letter to everyone on the list, insisting that the newspaper was independent. They also wrote, “Unlike your blog, we are truly independent.”
I believe my reports and columns stand on their own merit. We are independent; however, what I understand is that factual reporting is not always balanced – nor should it be.
This is certainly true of West Virginia’s dependence upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. The Mountain State has a long history of being exploited by the energy extraction industry. While it has provided the dignity that accompanies work, it has also caused tremendous harm to people and the environment. While it is important to acknowledge the dignity that comes with any work, it is also vital to acknowledge that coal, gas and oil companies virtually have unlimited resources to disseminate propaganda. For more than a century, the industry has exerted inordinate influence upon our political bodies. That is why is incumbent upon the press and media to counter those influences. Clearly, the pages of the Clarksburg paper don’t offer such a counter-balance. We all know the history of coal mining disasters. Now, mountaintop removal has been proven to cause harm to human beings. The same is true for fracking and the related pipeline development. These are scientific facts which we ignore at our own peril.
That does not mean that I deny that there have been some limited benefits from the energy extraction industry; nevertheless, present facts and the well-documented history of the industry prove that any benefits are far outweighed by the misery experienced by the people of the state and region, as well as the damages done to our sacred landscape.
The first energy extraction industry in the state was logging. Erosion, flooding and ugly landscapes were all that was left after the industry finished its work. To this day, a hiker accustomed to marveling at 150-year-old oak trees in the Pisgah Forest of North Carolina will struggle to find similar majesty in West Virginia’s forests.
Next was the coal industry, the history of which I have written about extensively. While one benefit of the industry is that it has provided jobs and the dignity that accompanies most work, many of Appalachia’s miners died (and are dying) from black lung disease. Hundreds of coal mining disasters have taken thousands of lives. In the early days of the industry, which occurred during America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century, the unholy alliance among robber barons and politicians corrupted democratic institutions, allowed just a few to control the means of production and transportation (railroads), and created horrendous working conditions for miners. This continues to this day as anyone paying attention knows (e.g, the Upper Big Branch disaster and all of its related fall-out). Also, William C. Blizzard’s book “When Miners March,” – as well as several other books, documentaries and movies – provide accounts of how industry leaders and elected officials colluded to conduct a literal war upon coal miners. Furthermore, we know – as fact – that burning coal is contributing to climate change. Finally, the modern practice of mountaintop removal mining has led to destruction and misery for everyone impacted by it – unless one owns the mountain that is being blown up.
Furthermore, the coal industry has unlimited resources to spew forth its propaganda and to use teams of lawyers to intimidate and threaten its opponents. So, we are seeking to balance that with factual reporting about the many negative aspects of our state’s reliance upon a the fossil fuel mono-economy. In addition to providing balance, it is my hope that our reporting will also challenge readers to consider that perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities – to question whether profits for a few should be allowed to trump the need for clean air and water; safe and peaceful communities; and, again, the sacred nature of the wilderness and its ecosystems.
Most recently, we have seen the assault upon people, property rights and the earth by the gas companies and their partners, such as Duke Energy.
When I was a student at Notre Dame High School in the early 1970s, I was part of the debate team. I learned then the value of a healthy debate. So, I welcome the exchange between our publication and the Clarksburg newspaper, as well as the insights shared by many readers of our blog. We need a debate in our community, the state and nation about the role of journalists.
This is more than a debate though. This is a teachable moment. Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides, because the facts do not support such a perspective. In West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia, the facts are clear – powerful interests have removed the riches from the earth for their own profit, while leaving its people battered, bruised and impoverished. It has left its landscape forever scarred.
Now, with the proposed construction of more than a thousand miles of pipelines to transport natural gas, the negative consequences could move into areas of Virginia and North Carolina that have, to a large degree, escaped the negative impacts of the energy extraction industry.
Consequently, I do not apologize for adhering to the journalistic principle that factual reporting is not always balanced. Those who have had their well water destroyed by fracking, their land taken unjustly, or their husband and father killed at Sago or Upper Big Branch understand this.
It would appear that the Clarksburg paper does not. Nor do many other publications that have compromised their integrity for profit.
So, the question is, to what view of journalism do you subscribe?
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.
From Monongah to Upper Big Branch, Profits Trump Safety
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.VA. – It was 107 years ago that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred not far from here.
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.
Such human tragedy, unfortunately, left many lessons unlearned.
It was less than five years ago that 29 miners will killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch-South mine (UBB). Just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon on April 5, 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 energy industrialists today, just as it did more than a century ago. This notion was reinforced on November 13, with the indictment of Donald L. Blankenship the former CEO and Chairman of Massey Energy Company. According to the Federal indictment, Blankenship “…conspired to commit and cause routine violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch-South mine (‘UBB’).”
Additionally, 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 indictment of Blankenship or the tactics of other energy industry giants (such as threatening the use of Eminent Domain before they have been approved for permits by authorities having jurisdiction)
We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 107 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 – and a cause.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.
NOTE: This is an excerpt from “A Failure of Will: A Century of Death in the West Virginia Coal Mines.” Read the full article here.
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).