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An Ancient Horror In Mining Country

leah's picture
an old horror in mine country

What has been happening in West Virginia in the last three days or so is the worst it gets for miners and their families, in this case 13 men who claw coal out of mountains so that the rest of us can have light and energy.

That picture from yesterday morning’s Washington Post seemed to me to say everything about what it means to find oneself in the middle of the worst you could possible imagine happening. First, that piercing siren, meant to be heard for miles, which told the families of these 13 men, who claw coal out mountains, that something terrible has happened, that miners are dead, or trapped or both. Then the wait, wondering, hoping, trying not to imagine what might be happening to your husband, son, father, uncle cousin, friend...praying that if there is no hope of reaching them, then that they are already gone, not, please God, slowly dying of asphyxiation, or in horrifying pain from the kind of terrible injuries an explosion can leave behind, while they wait for help that never comes, as one coal-mining family in Kentucky once described it to me.

I was wrong, of course.

We now know that there is something worse - to be told, at the very point when the certain news of 13 deaths seems inevitable, that "no, there has been one death, and the rest of those 12 men have been found alive," and then, a full three hours later, amid the joyous peeling of church bells and a community’s ecstatic relief, to be told the reverse - "no, it was a terrible mistake, some kind of miscommunication; we had it backward, one man is alive, though near death, the other 12 have been found dead, not alive."

I have no words to help myself or anyone else frame a response to that horror, except to ask that all the Gods who may be listening, to please give these families, this community the strength to find healing.

I think my first awareness of "irony," came from my childhood realization that miners spent their entire work life in darkness, so the rest of us could bask in perpetual light, even at night. Somewhat later I learned how hard, dirty, and ultimately killing was the work itself that miners do so that all of our lives could be made easier by the energy they found in those cold mountains. It never seemed fair to me; it still doesn't.

Not that miners are much for complaining. They take pride in their work, pride in its hardness. Those women in that picture are from a place in West Virginia that has named itself "Tallmansville." So miners tend not to be the ones who wish coal would move away from where they live, they know too well jobs that pay as well won't be easily found. That doesn't mean they aren't aware of the ways in which the extractive industries cannibalize our very planet itself, and we’re not talking about anything as dainty as environmental degradation, we’re talking about the removal of mountain tops, about tons of rock dumped into rivers turning them into slag heaps, about thick, perpetual curtains of dust enwrapping the lives of anyone who lives within miles of these inevitably corporate operations - nothing in the environment, indoors and out, is unaffected, not the land, not the sky, not the air they, and ultimately, we breathe.

Miners and their families know all that, all too well. They love the mountains and the valleys most of their families have lived on, in, or near for generations. They love the forest where they hunt and the rivers where they fish. That is, at least, partly, why so many stay. But is there a falser choice to be offered to citizens of a democracy than the one we offer miners, and by extension ourselves, the choice between decent work at decent wages and signing away what Tresy has rightly called our patrimony, that American landscape which is part of what it means to be an American? Not to mention the right to live where you want to without being slowly poisoned by the land you live on, the water you drink, and the air you breathe.

If there is one thing I resent most about the Reagan revolution and the rise of a radically right wing movement that likes to call itself "conservative" but isn’t, aside from having made the overt expression of racism "okay" again in this country, it's the contemptuous attitude they've encouraged toward those who do the real heavy lifting for this nation, blue collar and white collar, in both the private and the public sectors, and for the democratic union movement in this country, which, in representing our interests of the vast majority of Americans, who earn a living through the sweat of our brows and our brains, has made this a better, fairer, more democratic country in ways too numerous to count here.

Yes, I know, what about the "Reagan democrats?" Well, it’s entirely possible to fool people, at least half of them, all the time, or the reverse, as Lincoln reminded us, and many Americans got fooled by an ideology which was crafted to do just that. And while that was happening, those who had used that ability to fool us, used the levers of government which had come into their hands, with the help of a compliant, overfed and over paid media, to destroy the ability of government to act for the common good, and in particular, on behalf of those whose primary financial resource is a paycheck.

Troll prophylactic: don’t bother to leave a comment about the left’s unhingedness, lack of facts, and general inability to think straight, please, I’m perfectly capable of defending in detail each of the above statements, and I will in the coming year, often.

Now, we’re beginning to hear more about the history of this particular mining operation, and it isn’t a happy read. Many complaints, many violations of work rules, an accident waiting to happen; I haven’t the heart, in the midst of so much suffering, to get political, not right at this moment. But this tragedy is supremely, a political one. I hope the families and the community which are suffering this loss find that their healing includes holding to account any and all people, from the mining company to those in government responsible for workplace oversight, to account.

There is one blogger who has taken as his mission holding to account the corporate world, and championing the cause of workers and workplace safety, or, as his blog puts it, "News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics," and Jordan Barab’s "Confined Space" was the first place I went to find out the real story about what was happening, over the weekend, in West Virginia. He did not disappoint, he never does.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of taking full responsibility, International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago mine, is blaming the explosion on an act of God: "It's a horrible freak accident," [International Coal Group Chairman Wilbur] Ross said in an interview yesterday. "Apparently a lightning blot struck the mine." Yeah, and apparently there are monkeys flying out of your ass. Experts are quite skeptical about the lightning theory.


Meanwhile, back here in the nation's capital, the President Bush announced that the miners are in his prayers.


OK, that's all well and fine. I'm happy that the President is so concerned and I look forward to a significant increase in MSHA's budget. But the President and Scotty should also be aware that in addition to this extremely tragic event involving the lives of these 13 men and those who love them, 15 workers die in workplace accidents every day in this country.


The fact is that President Bush has not requested budgets for OSHA or MSHA that even keep up with the rate of inflation and mandatory pay increases over the past several years while penalties for OSHA or MSHA violations remain laughably low. The highest penalty of the more than 200 citations received last year by the Sago mine was $878. But that was the exception. Most of the others were $250 or $60. At that rate, it's hardly a good business decision to even bother fixing anything. And the administration has shut down any new worker protection standards in OSHA and MSHA.

It's not hard to imagine why this state of affairs exists in an administration dominated by energy interests.

Go read the whole thing; the material I edited out is every bit as read-worthy as the selections I choose.

I can’t think of a better tribute to those 12 lost miners and their families than to make a vow to pay close attention in this election year to the issues Jordan handles on an almost a daily basis on his blog.

For starters, don’t miss what has become a regular January feature: This year it’s the "Top Ten Workplace Health and Safety Stories of 2005." Yes, some of it is grim, but all of it is enlightening and none of it is dull.

Wouldn’t hurt to put a contribution in his Tip Jar, either. He’s doing God’s work, and it’s a lonely vigil, I fear.

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