They call it a mine.
The news of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine a few weeks ago only recently began to resonate with me. A methane buildup in the West Virginia coal mine led to the deaths of twenty-nine men and the worst disaster of its kind in forty years. The tragedy of this event was obvious and immediately apparent – most early stories focused on the toll it took on the locals and the implications for the families affected. Shortly thereafter, though, news agencies turned their cannon against Massey Energy, the owner of that mine and notorious violator of safety regulations. The better story quickly revealed itself as Massey’s grotesque disregard for its employees and the implausible number of infractions documented by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Here’s a taste: cited for 1342 violations since 2005, 86 of those related to air ventilation in Upper Big Branch.
As shocking as that is the fact that many violations were contested and appealed – meaning that the alleged violations could remain unaddressed for months and months. This is not unlike a system wherein a man accused of murder isn’t held in custody but allowed to continue his potentially dangerous and deadly ways. The murders continue until a ruling is made. Massey, of course, can’t suspend its activities because that would drastically affect its bottom line. Oh, corporate greed, you’re too dreamy.
Part of Obama’s reaction to this tragedy and the story of wanton disregard it brings to light was to promise further investigations and increase accountability. MSHA, as it turns out, is as toothless as any government agency and effectively powerless to stand against the money moving through Massey and other big mining companies. I thought the hopefully inevitable restructuring of MSHA and the reckoning it would bring to mining would turn into the real story.
But as it turns out, the most arresting thing about this whole thing is how unbelievably courageous miners are. Courageous or stupid or maybe desperate. There’s an implicit danger involved, no end to the history of deaths and injuries, and a recent resurgence of Black Lung frequency to season one’s retirement. From everything I’ve read the miners understand the risk, as do their families. But the job is more important than the guarantee of long life. The reality of the job, of going deep into the earth and digging for hours, of knowing the dangers as they breathe in that black air, that’s still a mystery to me. Surreal and kind of beautiful in its extremeness.
I appreciate that President Obama went to the memorial service in Beckley, West Virginia yesterday, and I’m grateful that the subsequent coverage made the deaths involved a little more real for me. He gave a eulogy presenting the men as heroes and as critical contributors to America’s welfare, and he and West VA senators promised to expose the details of the disaster and hold the guilty parties accountable. This from the NY Times:
“Day after day,” Mr. Obama said, “they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a convention center; that lights up our church or our home, our school, our office; the energy that powers our country; the energy that powers the world.”
Mr. Obama, who represented a coal-producing state as a senator from Illinois, invoked the dangers of their work. “They understood there were risks,” he said, “and their families did, too. They knew their kids would say a prayer at night before they left. They knew their wives would wait for a call when their shift ended saying everything was O.K.”
Joe Biden, historic wordsmith with a skill-set opposite Obama’s, memorialized the miners as a “band of 29 roughneck angels.”
If this whole thing was a product of gross negligence, then manslaughter should be the lowest charge thrown at Massey.