Coal Tattoo

Remembering mine disasters

My friend Mike Gorrell, longtime coal reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, has a story out this week marking Friday’s 30th anniversary of the Wilberg Mine Disater. In Remembering Wilberg, the lives lost, the humanity found, Mike writes:

Nothing in his first eight years as Emery County sheriff prepared Lamar Guymon for Wilberg.

He had dealt with murders and senseless violence, but never mass death, not like he saw unfold in a coal mine fire 30 years ago Friday that killed 27 miners, Utah’s worst disaster of the past 90 years.

Pain was everywhere. Many of the little towns in Emery and Carbon counties lost four or five sons, husbands, fathers and friends, along with a daughter.

With Wilberg, the anguish was magnified and prolonged. It took three days of heroic rescue efforts to squelch desperate hopes that the miners were alive. Almost a year passed before their bodies could be brought home from the mine, which was sealed to prevent the fire from triggering an explosion.

Read the whole story. It’s worth it. Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to get through a week without stumbling onto more history, another anniversary of another coal-mining disaster. Sometimes it seems like these things are all the more painful because of loose ends left hanging about what caused the deaths, and who was responsible. Mike writes:

The 27 families settled a wrongful-death suit with Utah Power & Light for $22 million in March 1987, two weeks before MSHA’s probe formally blamed the air compressor for the fire and cited the mine owner and operator for 34 mine-safety violations, nine contributing directly to the tragedy. Fines associated with those violations totaled a then-record $111,470. A criminal investigation began, but no charges resulted.

Safety regulations were revised in response to the fire, but none applied to mining conditions responsible for the disaster at Crandall Canyon, where implosions of the mine walls on Aug. 6 and Aug. 16, 2007, fatally buried six miners, killed three rescuers and injured six others.

The agony from all this endures in Emery County, but the residents remain steadfast.

Turkey Mining Accident

Family members weep during the burial of a mine accident victim in Soma, Turkey, Thursday, May 15, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history.(AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

Reading Mike’s piece reminded me of the recent New York Times Magazine story about the terrible mine disaster not so long ago in Turkey:

The Eynez mine was more than a square mile in extent and 1,300 feet deep. Fans constantly blew clean air inside. It took Ahmet at least 30 minutes to walk the mile to his job underground. Hadi! Hadi! the supervisors yelled, the constant cry to speed up, to do more. A decade ago, the mine was state-run and produced 1.5 million tons of coal a year, which had been deemed its natural production capacity. But in 2005, the mine was privatized, and eventually annual production rose to more than 3.5 million tons, all of which was bought by the government. The state still owned the mine, but through a system called rodovans (“royalty,” in English), it rented out the mine to a private company, which in turn sold back the coal for a fixed price. In practice, there was little separation between company and state. When government inspectors visited, the miners said, there was a sense of shared interests; the inspectors looked at the nicest parts and gave the mine a pass.

The Justice and Development Party, or the A.K.P., which has been in power for more than a decade now, needed the coal for electricity, for construction projects and, as the miners saw, for gifts to dole out at election time. The country’s prime minister and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had bags of coal delivered to poor Turks during his last three campaigns. Most miners supported the A.K.P.: If the party didn’t win, their bosses told them, you won’t have jobs. Sometimes, the miners said, they were paid their daily wage to take a bus to the A.K.P.’s famous, techo-thumping rallies, which often gave the impression that the entire nation had gathered in impromptu parties of collective joy. The miners, too, waved their hands in the air and screamed.

It’s hard to read that and not think about Southern West Virginia, and the recent election, and, of course, the ongoing criminal case involving former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. The Times had a recent front-page piece on Blankenship being charged. It was headlined, West Virginia Coal Country Sees New Era as Donald Blankenship Is Indicted, and reported:

Mine Explosion CongressMany family members of Upper Big Branch victims feared, in the nearly five years since the explosion, that Mr. Blankenship would never be held accountable because of his power and money.

As the United States attorney pursuing the case, R. Booth Goodwin II, won convictions of four lower-ranking Massey executives, miners’ families and others saw them as scapegoats. “Don Blankenship is a very powerful person; he won’t see a day in prison, I promise you that,” Jonathan Hughart, the son of David Hughart, a Blankenship lieutenant convicted last year, said at the time.

But all along, prosecutors were pressuring top executives to cooperate and establishing a paper trail tying Mr. Blankenship to daily decisions at Upper Big Branch. It is meant to refute any claim that he was too senior to have been involved in the disaster, which a state investigation traced to a corporate “culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation was the norm.”

Lots of questions remain about Upper Big Branch, and certainly about how the case against Blankenship will play out. But for me, this quotation, from a key court ruling about how our criminal justice system is supposed to operate, seems especially relevant:

… The significant community therapeutic value of public trials was recognized: when a shocking crime occurs, a community reaction of outrage and public protest often follows, and thereafter the open processes of justice serve an important prophylactic purpose, providing an outlet for community concern, hostility, and emotion. To work effectively, it is important that society’s criminal process satisfy the appearance of justice,which can best be provided by allowing people to observe such process …