Coal Tattoo

One more time: Can Upper Big Branch be the last?

Clay Mullins, brother of deceased Upper Big Branch coal miner Rex Mullins, is surrounded by members of the media Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 following a family meeting with investigators in Beckley, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

When I drove the West Virginia Turnpike to Beckley yesterday, I watched a long coal train chugging along the CSX line and saw the huge river loadouts near Chelyan. There was still the smallest bit of mist clinging to the ridges on both sides of the highway. By the time I headed back to Charleston — after a day of waiting, watching television reporters chase widows to their cars, and quizzing state mine inspectors about why they didn’t prevent the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years — night had fallen.

Back in December, when MSHA released its UBB investigation report, I wrote about how I felt as I played my little role in the eternal Appalachian coalfield play that surrounds the seemingly never-ending string of coal-mining disasters:

Earlier this week, I left the mine academy down in Beckley the same way I left West Virginia Wesleyan University and Chief Logan State Park after Sago and Aracoma a few years ago — with a huge binder under my arm, full of mine maps, charts and violations, a dry and complicated report telling in bureaucratic language how more coal miners met an early death deep under the ground.

Frankly, I felt a little guilty, like I was just playing my role in this little play. I’m the reporter, who comes in after the disaster to expose corporate negligence and government bungling, and to give the public a glimpse of the terrible toll the latest disaster to end all disasters took on more West Virginia families.

Come on, you all know the drill by now, given the string of disasters over the last five years: Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. First, there’s the waiting, with families, politicians and the media hoping and praying for survivors. Then there are the funerals, followed by investigations and congressional hearings. Then, we have events like this week — reports are released, settlements signed, maybe a few minor criminal charges are brought. At some point, there might be an “internal review” that explains in arcane double-speak just confusing enough for no one to understand it how the regulators we trust to keep an eye on the coal industry failed the miners.

Before the state’s report was released, I had started on a different blog post, with some thoughts on a series of news stories about Upper Big Branch and the ongoing mine safety debate at the West Virginia Legislature. Here’s what I had written:

I was just talking with a coworker about the interesting juxtaposition of stories on the front page of today’s Gazette.

At the top left-hand column was Phil Kabler’s story, Bill to improve mine safety on hold, which describes how legislative leaders and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin put their already very mild mine safety legislation on hold until they can get the coal industry to agree to its provisions.

Right below that was my story, 40 years after Buffalo Creek, coal-dam questions remain, about another anniversary of yet another coal industry disaster that caused death and destruction in our state’s coalfields.

It made me think about some words I saw earlier in the week, when I re-read Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, which said:

For the Buffalo Creek disaster, like the recent coal mine fire tragedies at Farmington, West Virginia, and at Hyden, Kentucky, could have been prevented — it need not have happened. Clearly and simply, people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.

In Appalachia — sometimes known as “the last white colony of western civilization” — absentee owners of the region’s vast energy resources and their subservient homebred and imported politicians time and again are to blame for mass death and destruction. Time and again, those most at fault throw up smokescreens to obscure their responsibility.

Following the fire and explosion at Consol #9 Mine in 1968 which killed 78 men, Governor Hulett Smith shrugged apologetically declaring, “This is one of the hazards of mining.” Smith did not add that the Consolidation Coal Company was guilty of numerous violations of the mine safety laws in this mine. Another governor, Cecil Underwood, performed so well for the Island Creek Coal Company following its Holden # 22 mine disaster 5 in 1960 that he was elevated to the position of executive vice president of the company immediately upon leaving the governorship.

Aside from the attempted whitewashing of the more spectacular mass murders, our governors never decry the terrible fact that more than 120,000 coal miners have been killed in the coal mining industry since its beginning, that one out of every ten coal miners is injured each year and that an estimated one-half of the coal mining work force becomes crippled or incapacitated by the insidious black lung disease.

In this deadly drama the coal operators’ script — placing profits before people — has been followed line-by-line by some of our political leaders. In the case at hand, the center stage characters are behaving true-to-form.

All of this really hits home if you check in with our website and read this morning’s story, UBB mine manager charged with conspiracy, which describes the criminal charges filed today against Massey mine superintendent Gary May.

Gov. Tomblin and other West Virginia political leaders are fond of attacking the federal government in general and the Obama administration most specifically, and demanding that federal officials stay out of the coal industry’s business.  But what about following up on the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years? U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin (appointed that job by President Obama) is busy trying to work his way up the corporate ladder to bring those responsible for 29 deaths to justice. At the other end of town at the state Capitol, Gov. Tomblin and legislative leaders wouldn’t dare try to pass a piece of coal-mine safety legislation that industry lobbyists haven’t agreed to.

Ironically, one of the provisions of the current bill that industry officials oppose is described by Phil Kabler this way:

Requiring mine operators or ranking supervisors to sign off on mine safety reports.

And one of the specific charges against Gary May is that he:

… Ordered a known person to falsify examination record books by omitting from the record books a hazardous condition, to wit, water of a depth that made it unsafe to travel a certain area of the mine.

If that weren’t enough, I noticed this piece that Jeff Jenkins over at MetroNews did summarizing what Tomblin chief of staff Rob Alsop doing his best Claude Rains impersonation (see video above) on Talkline about the charges filed against Gary May:

The immediate reaction from the Tomblin administration following Wednesday’s announcement of more criminal charges in connection with the UBB tragedy was to the point.

“These allegations are shocking,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Chief of Staff Rob Alsop said on MetroNews Talkline …  “Allegations about rewiring methane monitors, about rock dusting, it’s hard to fathom,” Alsop said.

Shocking? Mr. Alsop is the first person I’ve heard have that sort of reaction to the charges against Gary May.  Word about “bridging out” of methane monitors was in the news numerous times in the immediate aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Disaster (see here, here, and here, for example), and the state’s own special investigator, Davitt McAteer, reported last spring that methane testing at UBB was frequently faked.

Problems with rock-dusting? We’ve known since at least September 2010, when MSHA released its first data on the issue, that rock-dusting was not properly done at UBB in a way that would have prevented the terrible April 5, 2010, explosion from causing so many deaths.

Does anyone who has followed the Upper Big Branch Disaster at all really find anything all so shocking about the charges against Gary May?

I never posted that earlier, because I thought maybe I was being unfair to Rob Alsop. I wanted to think about it a little bit. Maybe what he was trying to say was that, in this day and age, it’s shocking the a coal mine would operate — and in fact, would be allowed to operate — in a manner that every government investigation and independent probe thus far has concluded was almost asking for a disaster to happen. Maybe he didn’t really mean he was shocked to hear that mine management was doing what Mr. May was accused of  — but more generally shocked something like that would go on at all in today’s modern coal industry, in the United States of America, in 2010. The video of his appearance on Talkline is on the MetroNews website. You can watch for yourself and see what you think.

But as I wrote earlier today, one thing is for sure: Current legislation being discussed at our statehouse does not do everything that could be done to protect coal miners. It doesn’t. Even Gov. Tomblin has stopped making that sort of claim. Maybe what happened at Upper Big Branch isn’t shocking to anyone anymore. But what is hard to fathom is that more isn’t being done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.