Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

A makeshift memorial, with flowers and a sign, covered the fence outside the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala., when I visited the area five years ago.

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the series of explosions that killed 13 coal miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Bookwood, Ala.

On this day last year, I wrote a little bit about my own trip to Brookwood five years ago, as part of the Gazette’s Beyond Sago:  Coal Mine Safety in America project and series. I also wrote:

It’s worth remembering that the Bush administration’s response to Brookwood was to proceed to dismantle the regulatory safety net intended to protect our nation’s coal miners. Since then, we’ve seen not only Sago, Aracoma and Darby, but also Crandall Canyon and now, Upper Big Branch. Since that day in September 2001, 292 coal miners in the United States have died — and that doesn’t count the perhaps 10,000 who succumbed to black lung in the last decade.

I did a quick Internet search and only found one mention in the media of today’s anniversary, an article in the local Tuscaloosa News,  recounting the investigation report and subsequent litigation over the disaster:

On Dec. 11, 2002, MSHA issued its report. It cited Jim Walter Resources for 27 violations, including eight major violations that the agency said contributed to the deadly disaster.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao sought $435,000 in civil fines from the company.

Jim Walter Resources appealed the penalty. MSHA Administrative Law Judge David F. Barbour took testimony over 24 days. On Nov. 1, 2005, Barbour ruled. He reduced the fine to $3,000 after dismissing six of the major violations against Jim Walter Resources and modifying the other two.

UMWA miner Ricky Rose, who survived the 2001 disaster, showed me his truck — decorated to honor his fellow miners who were killed — during a visit to Brookwood, Ala., five years ago.

The Labor Department and the United Mine Workers, which had intervened in the case, appealed to the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. In August 2006, the commission upheld most of Barbour’s findings, but sent the case back to him to reconsider the penalties.

On Dec. 26, 2006, Barbour issued his reassessment. He ordered Jim Walters Resources to pay a fine of $5,000.

The article concludes:

As for the No. 5 Mine, it reopened in mid-December 2001, after being closed almost three months. The mine was permanently closed and sealed in 2006.

Today, the processing plant at the surface of No. 5 still operates. It receives coal from another Jim Walter Resources mine via conveyor belt that runs more than 5 miles through the woods and hills of Tuscaloosa County.

Nearby, at West Brookwood Church, a memorial stands to the 13 coal miners who died 10 years ago.

In July 2003, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission awarded the Carnegie Medal to the 12 miners who rushed to Adams’ aid. Given to civilians who risk their lives to save the lives of others, the medal is considered one of the country’s highest honors for heroism.

I’m not sure what else to say … except that I’ll be thinking today of the fine people I met in Brookwood, Ala.  But on days like this, it is worth remembering the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

… As a child of the Appalachian coalfields, as the son of a West Virginia coal miner, as a U.S. Senator representing one of the most important coal-producing States in the Nation, let me say I have seen it all before. Yes, I have seen it all before.

First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster …