Coal Tattoo

Contract vote a relief for UMWA, Murray Energy

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The news Friday evening was certainly welcome for both the United Mine Workers of America union and Murray Energy:

Rank-and-file members of the United Mine Workers of America voted Friday to approve a proposal for a new contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, whose major member company is Murray Energy.

According a statement issued by the UMW, 60.3 percent voted in favor of the new collective bargaining agreement at six Murray Energy mines in West Virginia and Ohio.

As our story noted:

Murray has previously warned that finalizing a new contract with the UMW is a crucial part of his company’s plan to avoid financial default, and has hinted that without a deal he might consider bankruptcy court protection.

While the UMWA membership earlier this summer voted down an earlier contract proposal, the last thing union leaders want is to face a Murray Energy bankruptcy that would certainly not help their current battle to preserve union pensions and health-care benefits.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

This was a tough vote for our members to take. The coal industry is in a depression and more than 50 companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Thousands have been laid off. The pressures on those who are still working are tremendous and growing.

But despite all that, our members took a courageous stand by voting to try to keep their company operating while maintaining the best wages, benefits and working conditions in the American coal industry.

And Murray CEO Bob Murray said:

This is a good day for Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees, as this agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that our coal mines can keep operating, and our employees working, even in the current depressed coal marketplace.

Interior drops appeal of Blair Mountain ruling

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Word out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is that the Interior Department has dropped its challenge of a recent lower court ruling in favor of citizens and organizations trying to keep Blair Mountain listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Department of Justice lawyers for Interior’s National Park Service and the Keeper of the National Register filed this motion to voluntarily dismiss their appeal.

Readers may recall this ruling from April in which a district court judge vacated the Keeper’s decision to remove Blair Mountain from the register.

UPDATED:  Here’s a statement from the National Park Service:

The National Park Service decided to accept the district court’s April 11, 2016, ruling and to implement the court’s remand order by revisiting its December 2009 decision to de-list the Blair Mountain Battlefield site from the National Register of Historic Places.

Remembering mine disasters

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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.

Continue reading…

Who’s really been running W.Va. all these years?

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Somehow it makes sense that, in the wake of Tuesday’s general election results, one of the bigger pieces of coal news in West Virginia is the filing of a new lawsuit over the 46-year-old Farmington Mine Disaster.

History is a tough thing here in coal country. As the great historian John Alexander Williams has observed, the fact that our history is so painful is probably one reason it’s so poorly understood. But in understanding the election results, it’s important to try to step back and put them in context.

It’s popular among the GOP’s career campaign consultants to describe this election as some huge change in power, in who runs things in West Virginia. It’s the end of more than 80 years of Democratic control, they say over and over.

CapitoRaney

Of course, even if you want to focus only on the partisan aspects of this, their narrative ignores the three terms that Republican Arch Moore served as governor (at least part of the time, enriching himself in exchange for helping coal operators) and the two terms that Republican Cecil Underwood served as governor (at least part of the time, fighting against the Clinton administration’s version of the “war on coal“).

Joe ManchinRegardless of what Sen. Joe Manchin keeps telling himself, the terrible campaigns run by West Virginia Democrats were at the heart of their electoral losses this year.  But it’s not all about messaging or better television ads. It’s also about policy.

And on coal issues, the Democrats simply didn’t make much of a case. A Gazette editorial pointed out:

There is legitimate fear about the future of coal jobs, more from market forces that don’t favor coal, but also from pollution controls that are important for both local and global health. But did Democrats outline a solution so that as jobs disappear, as they have been doing for 50 years, people are able to move into other good jobs without losing their homes? No. They ran ads just like the Republicans, suggesting that all West Virginia’s problems are the fault of President Obama and the EPA.

The result? When faced with a genuine Republican and a pale imitation, people vote for the real thing, or don’t vote at all.

Governor TomblinThere are other examples, including some that might help Democrats do better with the vote among coal families (exit polls showed 23 percent of West Virginia Senate race voters had someone in their household who worked in the industry, and Rep. Capito got 73 percent of those people). While Democrats tried to make arguments that the Republicans would weaken mine safety and health protections, that doesn’t get much traction when West Virginia’s House, Senate and Governor’s office — all controlled by Democrats — pass such a weak excuse for a mine safety bill after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster (or when the Democratic Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, responds to mining deaths by saying basically, “well, accidents happen“.)

West Virginia Democrats like Natalie Tennant refuse to talk about the mounting evidence that mountaintop removal is not only an environmental disaster, but a public health crisis.  They make out like the only impediment to economic development in the southern coalfields is needing more flattened land, and ignore the problems created by huge tracts of the state’s land being owned by out-of-state interests.

Rather than coming up with realistic ways for West Virginia to do its part in tackling global climate change, West Virginia Democrats like Nick Casey shrug and say, “It’s not our problem.”

Even with the failure of the West Virginia Democrats to have, you know, a plan, there’s something more going on here.

If you want to look at recent history, it’s not hard to argue that the current GOP takeover of the Legislature started in 2004, when then-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship financed the effort to get Democrat Warren McGraw off the state Supreme Court, giving the seat to Republican Brent Benjamin. Let’s remember what the U.S. Supreme Court had to say about that whole affair.

Two years after the Benjamin victory, Blankenship financed an effort to to put more Republicans into the state Legislature. Larry Messina, then the AP’s statehouse reporter, described it at the time:

As part of his multimillion-dollar campaign to sweep Democrats from the Legislature, Massey Energy Co. chief Don Blankenship has helped provide more than one-fourth of the funds raised by his handpicked Republican candidates, campaign finance records show.

The wealthy president, chairman and CEO has spread nearly $100,000 among 60 candidates running for both the House and Senate. Following his lead, a relative handful of Blankenship associates – current and former Massey employees, suppliers and family members – have kicked in an additional $165,200 to these anointed candidates.

For 15 of Blankenship’s candidates, these contributions account for at least half of their funds. It represents three-fourths or more of the money raised by six of them.

But the direct contributions pale next to the statewide advertising campaign that Blankenship has bankrolled to wrest control of the 100-seat House of Delegates from the Democrats. As of Thursday, Blankenship had poured $2.03 million into his independent campaign that attacks 40 incumbent lawmakers while urging voters to support 41 GOP candidates.

Validating a rumor from when Blankenship first vowed to take on legislators, this spending so far equals $50,845 for each Democrat targeted. He has devoted an average of $72,636 to each of the 28 House districts statewide he seeks to influence.

That campaign was largely unsuccessful.  But a small core of former Blankenship aides, including operative Greg Thomas, has continued working for a decade now toward the goal of a Republican Legislature — reached with Tuesday’s wins in the House and Wednesday’s flip of the Senate.

These connections aren’t hard to make, or the recent history hard to understand — though they aren’t readily made in the state media coverage, partly because of constant staff turnover that erodes institutional memory, and partly because some in the state media aren’t that interested in connecting the dots.

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The Kentucky Darby Mine Disaster

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Today is the 8th anniversary of the May 20, 2006, explosion that killed five miners at Kentucky Darby LLC’s Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County, Ky. The Kentucky Darby Disaster claimed the lives of coal miners Amon Brock, Jimmy Lee, Roy Middleton, George Petra, and Paris Thomas. Injured in the disaster was miner Paul Ledford.

It’s worth noting that, despite the Sago Mine Disaster on Jan. 2, 2006, and the Aracoma Alma fire on Jan. 19 — claiming a total of 14 lives — Congress didn’t pass the MINER Act until after five more miners died at Kentucky Darby.

In its report on the disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded:

An explosion occurred at approximately 1:00 a.m. on May 20, 2006, inby the A Left No. 3 Seal. The explosion resulted in the immediate deaths of two miners who were located at the seal. Three of four miners evacuating from the B Left Section succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning with smoke and soot inhalation.

The accident occurred because the operator did not observe basic mine safety practices and because critical safety standards were violated. Mine management failed to ensure that proper seal construction procedures were utilized in the building of the seals at the A Left Section. Mine management also failed to ensure that safe work procedures were used while employees attempted to make corrections to an improperly constructed seal. Furthermore, mine management failed to adequately train miners in escapeway routes and proper SCSR usage.

And by the way, yesterday was the 112th anniversary of the Fraterville Mine Disaster, which killed 216, and the 86th anniversary of the Mather Mine Disaster, which killed 195.

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, April 5, 2010

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Four years ago this afternoon, an explosion tore through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. Twenty-nine coal miners died and two others were seriously injured.

For most of us, it’s just another day.  As Sen. Robert C. Byrd said after the previous disasters at Sago and Aracoma:

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.

But for those who lost loved ones, April 5 is now forever the day that they became a widow or an orphan, the day they lost their son or their best friend.  Here’s the list of those men who died so needlessly:

Carl Calvin Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Gregory Steven Brock

Kenneth Allan Chapman

Robert E. Clark

Cory Thomas Davis

Charles Timothy Davis

Michael Lee Elswick

William Ildon Griffith

Steven Harrah

Edward Dean Jones

Richard K. Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Lee Maynor

Nicholas Darrell McCroskey

James E. “Eddie” Mooney

Adam Keith Morgan

Rex L. Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard D. Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel R. Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Dale Skeens

Benny Ray Willingham

Ricky Workman

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006

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It was 8 years ago this morning that an explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va. Twelve miners died and another barely got out alive.

Miner Randal McCloy Jr. survived, and the miners killed were:

Tom Anderson, Terry Helms, Marty Bennett, Martin Toler, Marshall Winans, Junior Hamner, Jesse Jones, Jerry Groves, James Bennett, Jackie Weaver, Fred Ware, and David Lewis.

Investigators said the deaths were avoidable, and a report by Davitt McAteer’s team had plenty of blame to spread around.

And as I’ve said before, it’s always worth remembering these words from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, spoken on the Senate floor after Sago:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

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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., a few years ago.

Twelve years ago today, a series of explosions rocked the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala., killing 13 coal miners.  At the time, it was the worst coal-mining disaster in the U.S. in 17 years.

Unfortunately, since then we’ve had Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch.  During a visit to Brookwood in 2006, I attended a memorial service for those who died at No. 5, and I certainly recall what Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMWA District 20, told the crowd:

The legacy of Brookwood remains unfinished.  It can happen again without constant vigilance.

Corps seeks comments on Blair Mountain mining

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In this June 6, 2011 photo, this historical marker along W.Va. Route 17 in Blair, W.Va., is the only visible sign of the 1921 battle here between thousands of armed, unionizing coal miners and the thousands of law enforcement officers and security guards hired to defeat them. At least 16 men died on the mountain, which could be turned into a strip mine. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

There’s a new public notice out from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that looks pretty interesting:

The purpose of this Public Notice is to identify consulting parties who would be interested in assisting with the development of a Programmatic Agreement (PA) that would govern the implementation of the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) responsibilities under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) for undertakings that may affect the Blair Mountain Battlefield, a historic property.  The scope of the proposed PA would be limited to requests for Department of the Army (DA) authorizations submitted by the three applicants listed below for projects that would be subject to the Corps’ regulatory authorities under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA) of 1899 and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The applicants are: WPP LLC, Aracoma Coal Co. (Alpha Natural Resources) and Mingo Logan Coal Company (Arch Coal).

The notice goes on to say:

The Blair Mountain Battlefield is an approximate 1700-acre district located in Logan County, West Virginia. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has determined the Blair Mountain Battlefield is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The applicants have requested the Corps negotiate a PA in accordance with 33 CFR 800.14 for activities that meet all three of the following criteria:

a) the activity is proposed by one or more of the applicants listed above;

b) the activity would require DA authorization; and

c) the activity may affect the Blair Mountain Battlefield.

This PA would describe the procedures that would be followed to implement Section 106 of the NHPA for any Corps undertaking that meets all three of the criteria listed above. The purpose of the PA would be to establish a program for consultation, review and compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA when agreed upon criteria are met and procedures are followed.

Comments are due by Aug. 11 to this address:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

ATTN: CELRH-RD-E, Blair Mountain PA

502 8th Street

Huntington, West Virginia 25701-2070

Remembering the cost of coal

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As part of its continuing series, Fifty Years of Night, the Lexington Herald-Leader over the weekend provided an important reminder of the true cost of coal to our society. The first story, headlined Hundreds died in Kentucky coal mines in decades after mine blast exposed safety problems, focused on the Topmost Disaster in 1981:

One night in November 1981, Roy Conley saw an unusual glow around the electrical center at the small underground coal mine in Knott County where he worked, and he took it as a divine warning.

Conley kept it to himself for three weeks, but the worry was making him ill. He broke into tears when he finally told his wife: “I feel in my heart I’m going to get killed.”

He skipped the next work day at the Adkins Coal Co. mine at Topmost.

But with young children to feed and bills to pay, he went back on Dec. 7, 1981 — the day the mine blew up, killing eight men less than an hour into their shift.

It was the worst mine disaster in the county’s history.

The blast was part of a string of disasters that quickly focused scrutiny on regulators and coal-industry practices. Lawmakers strengthened safety rules, but another 1,518 U.S. miners, including 445 in Kentucky, would die on the job in the next three decades.

And it reminds us of what Harry Caudill wrote in Night Comes to the Cumberlands:

Whitesburg lawyer Harry M. Caudill’s father lost an arm in an accident at a coal tipple, so Caudill knew well the dangers of mining when he wrote his wrathful indictment of coal’s history in Eastern Kentucky, the book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

A “shockingly high” number of accidents in the early years of the industry killed and maimed miners in roof falls, explosions, machinery accidents and electrocutions, Caudill wrote in the 1963 book.

It was difficult to know the number of deaths and injuries, Caudill wrote, “but thousands of widows and orphans were left in the camps, and multitudes of ruined, broken miners were cast out to loaf before their dreary hearths and on the porches of the commissaries.”

Continue reading…

The Kentucky Darby Disaster, May 20, 2006

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Today is the 7th anniversary of the May 20, 2006, explosion that killed five miners at Kentucky Darby LLC’s Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County, Ky. The Kentucky Darby Disaster claimed the lives of coal miners Amon Brock, Jimmy Lee, Roy Middleton, George Petra, and Paris Thomas. Injured in the disaster was miner Paul Ledford.

It’s worth noting that, despite the Sago Mine Disaster on Jan. 2, 2006, and the Aracoma Alma fire on Jan. 19 — claiming a total of 14 lives — Congress didn’t pass the MINER Act until after five more miners died at Kentucky Darby.

In its report on the disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded:

An explosion occurred at approximately 1:00 a.m. on May 20, 2006, inby the A Left No. 3 Seal. The explosion resulted in the immediate deaths of two miners who were located at the seal. Three of four miners evacuating from the B Left Section succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning with smoke and soot inhalation.

The accident occurred because the operator did not observe basic mine safety practices and because critical safety standards were violated. Mine management failed to ensure that proper seal construction procedures were utilized in the building of the seals at the A Left Section. Mine management also failed to ensure that safe work procedures were used while employees attempted to make corrections to an improperly constructed seal. Furthermore, mine management failed to adequately train miners in escapeway routes and proper SCSR usage.

Earlier this month, the Courier-Journal in Louisville reported:

Nearly a year after it was fined more than $800,000 for safety violations, K and D Mining Inc. — run by two operators of the Kentucky Darby Mine where five miners died in 2006 — has essentially disappeared and none of the fines have been paid, federal records show.

It’s the latest example of how the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s penalty process is too slow and cumbersome to stop operators from putting miners in danger and fails to deter companies that ignore fines, mine safety advocates say.

“The process of collecting fines from scofflaw operators — rogue operators — is still broken,” said Wes Addington, deputy director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit firm in Whitesburg, Ky., that represents miners and their families on mine safety and environmental issues. “It really is disappointing.”

The story also noted:

The Courier-Journal reported in April 2012 that Napier and North had not paid nearly $700,000 in civil fines and interest fees for safety violations at Kentucky Darby, which closed.

And by the way, yesterday was the 111th anniversary of the Fraterville Mine Disaster, which killed 216, and the 85th anniversary of the Mather Mine Disaster, which killed 195.

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, April 5, 2010

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Three years ago this afternoon, an explosion tore through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. Twenty-nine coal miners died and two others were seriously injured.

For many of us, it’s just another day. At best, it’s a time to revisit the disaster and ask questions about why more hasn’t been done to prevent another one — or to stop the needless one-by-one death of miners across the coalfields. All too soon, April 5 will be just another date marked on the long, disgraceful calendar of this nation’s record of preventable mine explosions, fires and other disasters. As Sen. Robert C. Byrd said after the previous disasters at Sago and Aracoma:

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.

But for those who lost loved ones, April 5 is now forever the day that they became a widow or an orphan, the day they lost their son or their best friend.  Here’s the list of those men who died so needlessly three years ago today:

Carl Calvin Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Gregory Steven Brock

Kenneth Allan Chapman

Robert E. Clark

Cory Thomas Davis

Charles Timothy Davis

Michael Lee Elswick

William Ildon Griffith

Steven Harrah

Edward Dean Jones

Richard K. Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Lee Maynor

Nicholas Darrell McCroskey

James E. “Eddie” Mooney

Adam Keith Morgan

Rex L. Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard D. Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel R. Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Dale Skeens

Benny Ray Willingham

Ricky Workman

And here’s a slideshow that the Gazette’s Doug Imbrogno previously put together with photos of all of the miners:

Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

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(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Today is one of those days on the West Virginia calendar, a day that will live on in memories and newspaper clippings as a symbol of why we have strong laws on the books to regulate the actions of those in charge of the coal industry … It was 41 years ago that a series of poorly designed, badly constructed, and weakly regulated coal slurry dams failed on Buffalo Creek in Logan County.  The results are well known, and have been summarized here before:

A wall of sludge, water, and debris stormed down the hollow from Saunders to Man. By the time the Feb. 26, 1972, flood was over, 125 people had been killed. Another 1,100 were injured, and about 4,000 were left homeless.

For folks who want to read more today, I’d recommend going back to our 1997 Gazette series, Voices of Buffalo Creek, which is available online here. It’s also worth reading my friend Dr. Paul Nyden’s dissertation chapter about Buffalo Creek, which is online here. Part of the official state report on the disaster is online here.

It’s always worth remembering that problems with coal-slurry dams are far from a thing of the past, something found only in our history books.  Only in December, a United Mine Workers member was killed when part of a slurry dam at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run Mine collapsed. Two weeks ago, the federal government came in to try to force the closure of an unsafe slurry dam up in Barbour County.  Coal industry lobbyists and public relations agents — along with their friends among West Virginia’s political leadership — would rather the public not know about ongoing problems with coal slurry dams around the state.  But recent reports remind us of the dangers, and show again why a strong federal oversight of the coal industry is needed.

One of the best things to read on a day like today is  Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, which concluded:

Survivors’ accounts, journalists’ unanswered questions, and the disappearance of the mining company official most directly involved — together with the remembrance of past disasters — brought a stunned citizenry to its feet. The public was jolted from the depths of sorrow and anguish to a sense of outrage and anger that continues to burn.

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.

– Thus, officials of the company called the disaster an “act of God” because God put all that water behind a dam that wasn’t designed to hold it.

– Thus, Assistant Secretary Hollis Dole of the Interior Department, testifying before a sub-committee of Congress, doubted whether the refuse dam was “hazardous” and subject to regulation by the Bureau of Mines.

– Thus, Governor Arch Moore, taking charge of relief operations, said the lethal dam had a “logical and constructive” purpose. According to the image-conscious Governor, “The only real sad part is that the state of West Virginia has taken a terrible beating that is worse than the disaster.”

Given the enormity of the avoidable destruction of human lives and values wrought by the man-made Buffalo Creek flood, and the public outcry for justice it aroused, such performances by official-dom will no longer be tolerated. They are recognized for what they are — smoke screen tactics. They have served, at least in this one case, to reinforce the citizens’ determination that such an event shall not ever happen again — anywhere.

Remembering Bob Gates

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The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden reported in this morning’s paper this sad news:

Robert F. “Bob” Gates Jr., a noted West Virginia filmmaker who focused on the impacts of mining on coalfield residents and the environment, died Saturday at the age of 69.

Gates helped found the West Virginia Filmmakers Guild. He also was a member of various environmental groups over the years, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

“Bob really enjoyed making films,” Molly Moorhead, Gates’ wife since 1993, said Monday. “The films he made show his own views and passions. He felt they had to be made. He was a great guy.”

The story continued:

A day after Pittston Coal’s sludge dams collapsed at the head of Buffalo Creek on Feb. 26, 1972, Gates visited the 17-mile-long hollow in Logan County.

Gates took scores of photographs — on the ground and in the air — documenting the devastation created by the flooded river, which killed 125 people and left thousands homeless. He later released a DVD featuring many of the photographs he took.

In 1977, Gates released his first film, “In Memory of the Land and People” — about the environmental damages caused by strip mining in Appalachia and other areas of the country. The music of composer Béla Bartók, local songs and comments from local people are featured throughout the film.

Paul noted:

Gates died on Groundhog Day, after having hosted many Groundhog Day parties at his home in Charleston over the years, Moorhead said.

“Bob loved Groundhog Day,” she said. “I took him a card, with a little groundhog on it, when he was in the hospital. He was up and about, but apparently started to bleed again and they couldn’t fix it.”

And for those who, like myself, enjoyed many an argument with Bob over the years at a certain local establishment:

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday. Terri Marion, a friend of Gates’ family, said there would be a memorial celebration later this month at the Empty Glass Café, on Elizabeth Street, to celebrate Gates’ life and films, which will be shown during the event. A date has not been determined, she said.

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006

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It was 7 years ago this morning that an explosion ripped through International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va. Twelve miners died and another barely got out alive.

Miner Randal McCloy Jr. survived, and the miners killed were:

Tom Anderson, Terry Helms, Marty Bennett, Martin Toler, Marshall Winans, Junior Hamner, Jesse Jones, Jerry Groves, James Bennett, Jackie Weaver, Fred Ware, and David Lewis.

Investigators said the deaths were avoidable, and a report by Davitt McAteer’s team had plenty of blame to spread around.

And as I’ve said before, it’s always worth remembering these words from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, spoken on the Senate floor after Sago:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.