Coal Tattoo

Remembering Bob Gates

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

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.

44 years ago: The Farmington Mine Disaster

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Forty-four years ago today, 78 miners were killed in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va Here’s how the United States Mine Rescue Association describes the disaster:

At approximately 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 20, 1968, an explosion occurred in the Consol No.9 Mine, Mountaineer Coal Company, Division of Consolidation Coal Company, Farmington, Marion County, West Virginia. There were 99 miners in the mine when the explosion occurred, 78 of whom died as a result of the explosion. The other 21 miners survived the explosion and escaped to the surface; seven miners working in A Face Section, four miners working near the slope bottom, and two miners working near the Athas Shaft (areas not affected by the explosion) escaped unassisted to the surface. Eight miners working near the newly constructed Mahan Shaft when the explosion occurred were rescued via the shaft by a mobile crane equipped with a steel cable and a bucket large enough to accommodate three miners. All of the eight miners were on the surface by 10:40 a.m. of the same day.

The forces of the explosion extended throughout the west side of the mine inby Plum Run overcast which included nine active working sections. Generally, the ventilating controls, such as stoppings, overcasts, and regulators inby the Plum Run overcast, were damaged or completely destroyed. The Nos. 3 and 4 fans (Mods Run and Llewellyn) ventilating the west side of the mine, the hoisting equipment in and above the Llewellyn Shaft, and part of the combination lamp house, bathhouse, and supply house located near the Llewellyn Shaft on the surface were also destroyed.

Mine fires along with several additional major and minor underground explosions interfered with and eventually prevented rescue and recovery efforts. The mine was sealed at its surface openings on November 30, 1968. In September 1969, the mine was reopened and operations to recover the remains of the 78 miners were begun and continued until April 1978. Damage to the mine in the explosion area was extensive, requiring loading of rock falls, replacement of ventilation and transportation facilities, and in some cases new mine entries to bypass extensively caved areas. Investigative activities were continued, in cooperation with the Company, State, and United Mine Workers of America (UMW A) organizations, as mine areas were recovered. Between 1969 and 1978, the bodies of 59 victims were recovered and brought to the surface.

Recovery operations ceased and all entrances to the mine were permanently sealed in November 1978, leaving 19 victims buried in the mine and leaving some areas of the mine unexplored.

Farmington and its aftermath led to the passage by Congress of the 1969 federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. Read more about Farmington here, here, here and here. And if you haven’t yet, check out my friend Bonnie Stewart’s great book, No. 9.

In his doctoral dissertation, “Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coalfields,” the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden recalled the statements by company and government officials after the deaths at Farmington:

— West Virginia Gov. Hulett C. Smith: “We must recognize that this is a hazardous business, and what has occurred here is one of the hazards of being a miner.”

— Assistant Interior Secretary Jay Cordell Moore: “The company here has done all in its power to make this a safe mine. Unfortunately, we don’t understand why these things happen, but they do happen.”

— John Roberts, a public relations executive for Consolidation Coal: “This is something we have to live with.”

— United Mine Workers of America President Tony Boyle: “I share the grief. I’ve lost relatives in a mine explosion. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger of explosion.”

Here’s the late Hazel Dickens:

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)

Word just in today that a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ruled against the Sierra Club and other groups in their efforts to have Blair Mountain returned to the National Register of Historic Places.

I’ve posted a copy of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton here, but in short, the judge ruled that the citizen groups could not meet one of the requirements to show “standing” to bring the case, that of “redressability,” or that a favorable ruling from the court would redress their injury. The judge explained:

It is likely, therefore, that surface mining would be permitted on the Blair Mountain Battlefield as a result of permits that were acquired prior to the historic district’s inclusion on the National Register. An order from this Court restoring the Blair Mountain Battlefield to the National Register, therefore, will not prevent mining from occurring should the coal mining companies who own existing permits choose to exercise their rights afforded by the permits. The Court having only a limited ability to redress the plaintiffs’ asserted injuries, the plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden under the final prong of the standing inquiry.

Happy Labor Day

Phil Smith at the United Mine Workers of America was kind enough to share this photograph he took recently of a union miner at the Cliffs Natural Resources Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County.

It’s a good day not only to spend time with family and friends, but to remember the workers who do so much for all of us … Here’s hoping everyone has a safe and enjoyable day.

Read about the history of the holiday from the U.S. Department of Labor or  Wikipedia, and read a collection of great journalism on worker safety put together by ProPublica.

Remembering the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster

Five years ago today, the first in a series of coal-mine “bumps” occurred at Murray Energy’s Crandall Canyon Mine out in Utah. Before the disaster was over, six miners and three would-be rescue workers were dead.

Peg McEntee, columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote about the anniversary:

Drive up the road to the Crandall Canyon Mine and you’ll see abandoned buildings, silent conveyors and the gaping, dark portal that leads to the tomb of six good men.

Then walk up the winding path to nine black stone monuments — six markers for the men who died first, and three benches for those killed while trying to find them.

Many of the families who lost their husbands, fathers and sons have left Utah’s coal country, but some remain. For those, the country’s social fabric, and the all people who live and work there, remain a comfort.

“We put our arms around the families and help them grow as much as they can,” says Price Mayor Joe Piccolo. “The one thing about coal miners and their families is that they’re self-reliant, resilient people.”

She concludes:

Last week, I stopped at another monument to the miners near the Huntington Cemetery. It’s a curving wall with a panel of bas-reliefs of their faces, sculpted by Karen Templeton and cast in now-patinated bronze.

I’d seen it before, but this time I felt a shock — they seemed to be looking right into my eyes. For an instant, I caught a glimpse of the good men who will always live in memory in coal country and far beyond.

Remembering the near-disaster at Quecreek

Ten years ago this week, nine Pennsylvania coal miners nearly died when the mine where they worked accidentally drilled into a nearby mine tunnel filled with water, flooding their own operation and setting off a furious rescue effort that ended successfully when the miners were all pulled to safety in that bright yellow capsule.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a commemorative piece that started out like this:

Harry Mayhugh was operating a coal scoop at Quecreek Mine the morning of July 24, 2002, when he heard a “huge” noise.

Thomas Foy, his father-in-law, came and told him they had to leave; they had cut into an old mine. Foy told Mayhugh to get the other miners so they could “get the heck out of here.”

Fourteen men were working in the mine that morning when a wall of cold water rushed in from an adjacent, abandoned mine.

Five of the crew – Barry Carlson, Douglas Custer, Dave and Ryan Petree, and Lawrence Summerville – ran for their lives. They were the lucky ones.

Nine others – Foy, Mayhugh, Randy Fogle, John Unger, John Phillippi, Dennis Hall, Robert Pugh Jr., Mark Popernack and Ron Hileman – could not escape the tide of 72 million gallons of water, powerful enough to sweep away tons of equipment that blocked escape routes.

The Post-Gazette has a collection of its Quecreek stories online here, and the P-G also published an op-ed commentary from MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin called Commemorating Quecreek, 10 years later: We’ve learned a lot since those miners were lifted to safety.  It includes some personal memories and thoughts like this:

In my 32 years with MSHA, I have not always seen a mine emergency end so positively. I was proud of my counterparts within MSHA and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the local first responders, Enlow Fork’s mine rescue team, the U.S. Navy and volunteers with the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Everyone pulled together, prayed together and, ultimately, celebrated together.

In recent years, the mining industry has been marked by tragedy more than celebration. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of the critical role MSHA and mine operators play in maintaining a safe and healthy work environment.

And it has some MSHA PR stuff like this:

Following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in April 2010 that claimed the lives of 29 miners, MSHA instituted a program targeting mines with the most troubling compliance records. Since then, we have carried out 452 targeted “impact” inspections and issued 8,949 violations.

These efforts are paying off. Overall compliance is improving at mines after we inspect them. Violations per inspection hour are down 13 percent after mines receive an impact inspection, significant and substantial violation rates are down 21 percent, and actions requiring miners be withdrawn from a mine are down 43 percent.

Improvements are also occurring in the industry as a whole. In 2011, MSHA inspected about 14,170 mines and issued 157,613 citations and orders. This number is down from 2010, when MSHA issued 170,909 citations and orders.

We’ve also made significant progress in mine rescue response and our command and control capabilities. In the 10 years since the Quecreek rescue, technology has advanced in amazing ways. MSHA now has a robot that can explore underground areas that may be too dangerous for rescuers. Our new command center vehicle will soon be equipped with a smart board system that enables personnel on the surface to communicate in real time with rescue teams as they travel underground.

MSHA is touting its participation in this week’s commemoration ceremonies up in Pennsylvania, including the ribbon cutting at a new visitor center.  There are numerous media availabilities.

I hope some of the local media who attend ask some good questions about what kinds of reforms have — and most importantly haven’t — taken place over the last decade to try to avoid a repeat of the near-disaster at Quecreek.  As I wrote in a previous Quecreek post:

It’s also worth noting that Quecreek made a hero out of then-MSHA chief Dave Lauriski (below,  helping then-Pa. Gov. Mark Schweiker carry one of the rescued miners).

As I wrote in a piece for The Washington Monthly,  Lauriski was at the time under fire for actions that appeared — rightly so, it turned out — to be the start of a Bush administration effort to back off tough safety and health enforcement in the coal industry. But Quecreek made him a hero, and media scrutiny and congressional investigations went away — until the Sago Mine in West Virginia blew up on Jan. 2, 2006.

We know now that Lauriski, then-Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and the Bush administration gutted MSHA, setting the stage for the disasters that followed, not only at Sago, but at Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon and Upper Big Branch. Not only did they slash MSHA’s budget and staff, but they pushed their “compliance assistance,” industry-friendly approach to enforcement, something that independent reviewers have pinpointed as a major cause of the deaths that followed Quecreek.

More specifically, maybe the media will ask current MSHA chief Joe Main why he hasn’t followed up on a rule change that he argued was absolutely necessary after Quecreek.

Remember that an investigation by the MSHA  blamed the flood — called a mine inundation — on the use of an undated and uncertified map that did not show the full extend of mining at an adjacent operation:

The primary cause of the water inundation was the use of anundated and uncertified mine map of the Harrison No. 2 mine thatdid not show the complete and final mine workings. Using thismap led to an inaccurate depiction of the Harrison No. 2 mineworkings on the Quecreek #1 mine map required by the Mine Safetyand Health Administration and on the certified mine map submittedto the State of Pennsylvania during the permitting process. The root cause of the accident was the unavailability of a certifiedfinal mine map for Harrison No. 2 mine in the State ofPennsylvania’s mine map repository.

This led to much of the focus after Quecreek  being on improving the availability and accuracy of mine maps. But MSHA critics and mine safety advocates argued at the time that the real answer was for federal officials to strengthen their regulations on test drilling of adjacent areas during underground mining. Among the most vocal of these MSHA critics at the time? That’s right, Joe Main, who was then the chief safety and health officer of the United Mine Workers union.

About three months after Quecreek, I attended an MSHA meeting here in Charleston about the then-hot issue of mine inundations, and reported this:

Joe Main, safety director for the United Mine Workers union, criticized MSHA’s decision to focus on mine map accuracy at Tuesday’s symposium.

“Mapping is a diversion,” Main said. He said that the real issue is the need for MSHA to strengthen its regulations on test drilling of adjacent areas during underground mining.

On July 31, three days after the Quecreek rescue, Main wrote to Lauriski to urge such an action. MSHA has never replied.

Currently, MSHA rules require test drilling of adjacent areas whenever an active mine is within 200 feet of where a map shows an abandoned mine to be located.

“There is a clear need to redo the rule,” Main said. “We are waiting for some action from MSHA on that.”

In 1996, when Davitt McAteer was in charge of MSHA, he rewrote those rules to require drilling of both sides of advancing mine work areas, instead of just one side. Main and the UMWA advocated for more, asking that the distance drilling was required be extended to 500 feet. MSHA refused. And it was certainly no surprise that Lauriski and the Bush administration did nothing about this recommendation.

Since Joe Main took over at MSHA under the Obama administration, I don’t recall him ever talking about this particular rule, and he certainly hasn’t proposed the sorts of changes he said there was a clear need to make. I’ve asked MSHA about this, and I’ll update this post if they respond. In the meantime, remember what Kevin Stricklin said in his Post-Gazette commentary:

 … There is one thing we’ve known all along, and that doesn’t change: Mine disasters are preventable, and miners deserve to return home to their loved ones after every shift.

Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

(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)

Earlier this week, I wrote a print story for the Gazette looking back briefly at the Buffalo Creek Disaster and at the continuing concerns of coalfield citizens about coal-slurry impoundments that loom over their communities. As I wrote in that story:

Forty years ago Sunday morning, a trio of coal-waste dams at a Pittston Coal operation on Buffalo Creek in Logan County collapsed. 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.

A citizens’ commission report called Buffalo Creek “a man-made disaster.” A governor’s task force concluded, “It was, in the truest sense, the most destructive flood in West Virginia history.”

Today, hundreds of coal-waste dams still loom over Appalachian communities. Coalfield residents often worry it could all happen again.

Industry officials and most regulators say it won’t. They point to tougher laws, stronger engineering standards and better construction practices put in place after the Buffalo Creek Disaster.

Other experts acknowledge serious improvements over the last four decades. Buffalo Creek spurred Congress to pass the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Lawmakers also added new dam-safety duties to the work of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration when they rewrote coal-mine safety rules.

But coal-slurry impoundments remain a constant target for citizen concerns, and for the environmental community’s growing efforts to crack down on the coal industry generally and mountaintop removal specifically. And some experts say there are reasons to be worried.

“We’ve come a long way since Buffalo Creek,” said longtime mine inspector Jack Spadaro, who investigated the disaster for a special gubernatorial commission.

A few years back – at the 25th anniversary of that terrible flood — I did an oral-history interview with Jack Spadaro and he told me:

The thing that disgusted me was that people in the valley had been saying for years there was a problem there. They’d been evacuated many times before because of the fear of a dam failure.

A woman named Pearl Woodrum wrote a letter to the governor, I think it was dated February 1968, four years before the flood. Pearl Woodrum was saying to the governor that there was a dam at the head of Buffalo Creek that was unsafe and that if it failed, it would kill all the people in the valley. She said, ‘If you don’t do something, we’re all going to be washed away,’ and that’s what happened. It was a prophecy.

The head of the Public Service Commission had a copy of her letter and didn’t do anything. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Natural Resources had been repeatedly asked to look at it. There was this letter to the governor that was passed on down through the layers of government, and nowhere along the way did anyone take any kind of decisive action.

There were other people in the valley, I don’t remember their names, who complained regularly. They went to a Mr. Oval Damron, who was prosecutor in the county at the time, but he didn’t take any action. He knew about the problem, but he didn’t take any action.

During the four years between ’68 and ’72, there had been plenty of attention placed on the potential hazards of the dam collapsing and no one from the government took any decisive action, even though there was some law on the books that should have protected those people.

I remember Jack telling me that one of the lessons he learned was to “listen to the people,” and I’ve tried to remember that as I’ve continued my career as a reporter. Unfortunately, even in my lifetime, there have been multiple disasters where it was clear warnings were raised, but nobody in any position of power listened. That goes for the Sago Mine Disaster, where scientists pointed to the possibility of a lightning strike causing a coal-mine explosion, to Upper Big Branch, where workers tried to tell Massey mine managers that the operation was a disaster waiting to happen.

Continue reading…

Update: Arch says mining not imminent at Blair

Arch Coal hasn’t responded to my requests for comment about what’s going on down at Blair Mountain, but they did apparently provide a statement to the folks at E & E’s Greenwire … here’s what is being reported by that subscription-only publication:

Arch spokeswoman Kim Link dismissed the concerns that mining activity is imminent.

“We are not currently conducting any mining-related activities in the area in question,” she wrote in an email, “and we have no immediate plans to do so.”

What’s going on at Blair Mountain?

Well, the folks at the Sierra Club just issued a press release headlined, “Is Arch Coal About to Mine Historic Blair Mountain? Local and National Groups Rally to Townspeople’s Defense.” They say:

Residents of Blair, West Virginia have noticed increased activity from mining company Arch Coal around the historic Blair Mountain Battlefield site. Members of the town have become more and more concerned about Arch’s activities and fear they are moving forward with plans to mine the Blair Battlefield site. There have been reports of proposed buy outs of resident’s property, increasing industrial activity in the area and other preparations indicative of a move towards mining operations on the battlefield itself. Blair Mountain is the site of the largest civil insurrection in American history since the Civil War. In 1921 more than 10,000 coal miners fought forces backed by mining interests in an attempt to organize unions in Logan and Mingo County.

It’s interesting … because nearly a dozen people I’ve talked to today — including some with close ties to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups — have told me when I asked that they don’t really know what’s going on. Even local folks who are watching developments very closely aren’t sure that the increased activity is any indication that strip-mining of the site is imminent. (One even told me it’s possible that the movement is in preparation for planned longwall mining underground).

I first heard about this yesterday from filmmaker-activist Mari-Lynn Evans, who told me to get more information from retired miner-activist Joe Stanley. And Joe told me I should really talk to Brandon Nida, the executive director of Friends of Blair Mountain. I talked to Brandon today, and what he told me he’s witnessed himself and heard from residents was pretty close to what the Sierra Club recounted in its press release:

There’s been a huge amount of activity in Blair, with equipment and logging trucks. It does look like Arch is going to be doing something.

Continue reading…

The Aracoma Mine Fire, Jan. 19, 2006

My thoughts today are with the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, the two coal miners who died six years ago in that terrible fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

As I wrote a year ago on this date, readers will recall that Massey Energy’s Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations that led to their deaths, and paid a record $2.5 million in criminal fines and $1.7 million in civil penalties. Five Massey foreman also pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but none of them went to jail.

But the U.S. Department of Justice and then-U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller agreed to a plea deal with Aracoma Coal in which the government agreed not to prosecute any employees or officers of the corporate parent, Massey Energy. This deal drew much criticism from the widows of Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield.

Prosecutors said they had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Massey or its officers or employees, but lawyers for the families wondered about a key memo that indicated then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew about the poor condition of the conveyor belts at Aracoma and knew mine officials were not accurately reporting those conditions on mine safety reports.

In last year’s anniversary post, I questioned whether the criminal investigation of the deaths of 29 more Massey miners at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine would end any differently:

What will come of this new criminal investigation? Will prosecutors bring charges against a few mid-level foremen, or will they find and try to punish wrongdoing by anyone further up the corporate ladder?

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a flurry of action on Upper Big Branch.  In late October, the mine’s longtime security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, was convicted of two felonies, with a jury finding that he lied to investigators and tried to destroy evidence about Massey’s habit of warning underground workers of impending safety inspections — a practice that federal inspectors say played a major role in the April 5, 2010, disaster.  Stover faces up to 25 years in prison. Already, a former Massey miner had pleaded guilty to faking foreman’s credentials while he spent almost two years performing safety inspections for the company at Upper Big Branch. While there’s no direct evidence the actions of Thomas Harrah played any role in the disaster, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Harrah to 10 months in prison.

Then in December, as the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was preparing to issue the report of its investigation into Upper Big Branch, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that his office had reached a landmark deal with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey last June. Alpha would agree to spend tens of millions of dollars on mine safety improvements, and Goodwin would agree not to bring any criminal charges against the company.

And just last week, the remaining families of the Upper Big Branch miners settled their wrongful death cases, agreeing to a deal through with Alpha will pay them undisclosed amounts of money to resolve those cases and allow the company to, essentially, turn the page on the disaster it inherited from Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

The families have made it clear that they want justice — not just money. As one of the family lawyers, Tim Bailey, told me:

Compensation is one thing, but justice is another. Based on what happened at this mine, there is not going to be justice until some people are indicted and some people go to jail.

Will more people go to jail? Well, we know that the Alpha-Justice Department deal does not include language to protect any individual officers, agents or employees of Massey from prosecution … and U.S. Attorney Goodwin has said his office has uncovered other crimes for which the appropriate individuals have not yet been charged.  The question is — will Goodwin and his staff find a way to bring charges against these individuals and to make those charges stick? A more cynical person that I might also ask if higher-ranking officials at the Justice Department, with Goodwin’s Alpha deal already in their pockets, think it’s time to move on and pressure Goodwin to just drop it?

West Virginia political leaders certainly don’t have the stomach for much more talk about 29 coal miners getting blow up … Every chance they get, our local elected officials encourage us all to forget about the bad old days of Massey, and focus on the new leadership at Alpha (the “new ownership in Southern West Virginia“, as my friend Rep. Nick Rahall likes to say), forgetting about Alpha’s willingness to keep some top Massey managers on board — and about the fact that Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield can’t seem to bring himself to say publicly that UBB could have easily have been prevented and wasn’t any sort of Act of God. It takes a congressman from California — ranking Democrat on the Labor Committee, George Miller — to bother to ask Crutchfield about any of this.

Before anyone in the federal government decides they should just drop this criminal probe, I wonder if it might be worth them being put into a room for a while with the widows of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield or at least read what their lawyer, Bruce Stanley, told me last month:

Sadly, aggressive prosecution against upper management in the Aracoma case might have spared us the horror of UBB. We’ll never know, of course. But we certainly hope that the lesson of making deals with the devil has been learned, that the criminal investigation makes its way into the boardroom as well as the guard shack, and that Alpha chooses a different path than its predecessor.

Remembering the Farmington Disaster

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Forty-three years ago yesterday, 78 miners were killed in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va.

WBOY-TV reported from yesterday’s commemoration:

That morning, an explosion at the Consol Number 9 Mine just outside of Farmington, only allowed 21 of the 99 miners inside to escape.

“They’re heroes. These 78 men are truly heroes in the working miners’ eyes today. After this explosion, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, which literally saved thousands and thousands of lives,” said Mike Caputo, the international vice president of UMWA District 31.

On Sunday, family and friends gathered at the site where 19 of those who died that day still remain.

The annual service has become a reunion, and a reminder to families that the sacrifice they made will never be forgotten.

“The reason why I’m here, is in honor of my dad’s memory. It’s because of him and the other 77 miners that everybody is safe to go to work and being comfortable with it now,” said Sharon Clelland, who’s father was killed in the explosion.

For the first time since the services began at the mine site, all of Sharon’s brothers and sisters were there to stand proudly with their mother.

“He has a cloud of glory. His face is so full of smiles now. He’d be so happy that we’re still together as a family. Family meant everything to Dad, and to know that we’re still as close today, as we were when we were little is just awesome,” beamed Clelland.

If you haven’t yet, check out my friend Bonnie Stewart’s book, No. 9, which chronicles the disaster and its aftermath.

Big Blair Mountain rally set for Tuesday

Here’s the latest from the Friends of Blair Mountain:

On November 1st, a variety of citizens are coming together to raise awareness of the Battle of Blair Mountain and to call on our state agencies and politicians to preserve the Blair Mountain battlefield and develop it as the significant national historic site that it truly is.

In 1921, ten thousand coalminers joined together to fight for their basic human rights to live and work in safe conditions. They fought for five days on the steep ridges of Blair Mountain until finally federal troops quelled the conflict peacefully.

Currently, Blair Mountain is threatened by imminent destruction from MTR, an extremely destructive form of coal extraction. A broad range of citizens including community members, union coalminers, environmentalists, academics, and many other people have been working to preserve the battlefield.

We have already taken constructive steps to show that heritage tourism is profitable, with the establishment of Coal Country Tours that features Blair Mountain as a stop along a multi-day tour through the coalfields. We have also established a Community Center and Museum in the town of Blair, WV, to celebrate the struggles of coalminers at Blair Mountain as well as larger coalfield culture.

We will continue to build local business around the Blair Mountain battlefield, and to continue to honor the heritage of coal mining families. With this press conference and rally at the State Historic Preservation office at the Cultural Center, we are asking our state government to step up and help us preserve and develop Blair Mountain.

We realize it is a difficult political decision due to pressure from the coal industry, but is it one that will preserve a piece of heritage for future generations as well as building local business now. We believe that with all of us working together we can come up with a viable solution where the jobs of coalminers are protected, new and diverse business opportunities are generated in the communities around the battlefield and coal companies can still underground mine the battlefield.

Come join us on November 1, 2011, at 12:00 as we discuss the importance of Blair Mountain and present a petition with over 26,000 signatures from people around the world to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer. Speakers will include noted scholars, mining families, activists, and community members. All are welcome to attend.

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.

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On the heels of last week’s demand for an investigation of  what the United Mine Workers alleges are misleading coal exhibits at the West Virginia State Museum, citizen groups have now sued the state Department of Environmental Protection over its refusal to consider “lands unsuitable for mining” protections for historic Blair Mountain in Logan County.

As The Associated Press reported:

Several groups that couldn’t convince state regulators to declare Logan County’s Blair Mountain unsuitable for mining are taking their case to Kanawha Circuit Court.

In a complaint Thursday, they asked the court to force the state Department of Environmental Protection to accept their June petition and hold a hearing.

“DEP can’t just skip the public hearing because it’s more convenient for them to do so,” argued Bill Price of the Sierra Club. “… Blair Mountain belongs to all West Virginians, and all West Virginians have a right to weigh in.”

Recall that WVDEP’s mining director, Tom Clarke, declared the citizens’ petition “frivolous” and refused to even process it — let alone hold a public hearing and examine the matter in any detail. In his letter responding to the original petition, Clarke wrote:

A significant portion of the lands identified in your petition has been affected in the past and continued to be affected by oil and gas and logging operations. These activities have great potential to adversely affect the historic integrity of the lands you have identified. A declaration that the lands you have identified are unsuitable for mining would not effectively protect the historic integrity of these lands because it would have no effect on oil and gas and logging operations.

Because I am rejecting your petition as frivolous, no other findings are being made with respect to it.

Barbara Rasmussen, a historian and President of Friends of Blair
Mountain, responded:

Since the 1991 petitions were submitted, a number of new and significant facts have come to light. The exact area for which we had requested unsuitability status is ‘eligible for listing’ on the National Register of historic places, and multiple professionalarchaeological and historical surveys have been completed, which led to the discovery of 15 previously unknown battle sites at Blair Mountain.

And Cindy Rank, mining chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said:

For DEP to dismiss the entire petition because some minor portion of the petition boundary might be ineligible due to prior permitting ignores the value and eligibility of the other 70% of the Battlefield. DEP’s response is an affront to the very intent of the Surface Mine Act, which provides a mechanism to protect important historical sites like Blair Mountain.


In related news, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has denied a request from the Department of Interior to transfer a case challenging the removal of Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places to a federal court in West Virginia.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton noted the “national significance” of the issue. I’ve posted a copy of the ruling here.


UMWA blasts W.Va. state museum

Just in from the United Mine Workers of America, this three-page letter to W.Va. Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, in which UMWA President Cecil Roberts raises major questions about the state museum’s portrayal of coal history:

Over the past months, several members of the UMWA staff have visited the West Virginia State Museum on many separate occasions. I have been to the museum myself, and seen the displays there. I have a number of very serious concerns with what is an inaccurate portrayal of the UMWA and our history of oppression and struggle against the coal operators of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the examples:

— The ‘Company Store’ including the discussion of the system of using mine company scrip instead of U.S. legal tender to pay miners. Your presentation makes it seem as if the scrip system was little different from a credit card, where miners and their families could pay of expensive purchases over time.

Nowhere is it stated that miners had absolutely no choice as to whether they used scrip or not. Nowhere is it mentioned that going somewhere else instead of the company store to purchase goods and equipment was an offense frequently punishable by a beating from the company’s Baldwin-Felts thugs followed by dismissal from employment and eviction from the company house.

— ‘Coal Mining’ includes misleading statements regarding Island Creek Coal and the UMWA organizing, as well as a very small presentation regarding the worst industrial disaster in United States history — the explosion at the Monongah Mine — that includes language regarding the company’s Christmas ‘gift’ to the families of those killed that is offensive to the memories of the fallen miners.

— ‘The Battle of Blair Mountain,’ which blames Sid Hatfield for instigating the violence in the coalfields that led to that battle, instead of focusing on the daily violence inflicted on coal miners and their families in the coal camps of the day.

Roberts continues in his letter:

Indeed, in just about every instance where the UMWA is mentioned in the museum, we are linked with violence or some other unsavory activity. There is no mention of the millions of West Virginians who have, over the past 60 + years, received or continue to receive the benefits of UMWA pensions and retiree health care — considerably easing their senior years — which were negotiated by the UMWA.

There is no mention of the UMWA’s leading role in passing mine safety and health legislation which have saved countless lives in West Virginia and throughout the nation. There is no mention of the UMWA’s role in fighting to end black lung and to establish and then protect black lung compensation.

Roberts asks Randall Reid-Smith to respond, and explain how the state intends to “correct this false information” and “whether or not you intend to work with the UMWA on correcting the biases imparted by so many of the museum’s displays.”



“I appreciate Cecil Roberts and the UMWA for bringing their concerns to light,” Gov. Tomblin said. “And the impact labor organizations like the UMWA has had on our state and nation in shaping today’s workplace. As such, I have instructed the Division of Culture and History to review the information provided and act accordingly to ensure our state’s history is portrayed accurately.”


WVDEP: Blair Mountain petition ‘frivolous’

Update: The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden has a full story on this development in today’s paper. It’s online here.

This just in: The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has responded to the petition filed in early June seeking to protect Blair Mountain by having the area declared “unsuitable for mining” under the strip-mining law.

WVDEP’s answer to the petition filed by the Sierra Club, along with labor and historic preservation groups?

The petition is “frivolous”.

That’s right, in this three-page letter to Derek Teaney at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, from Tom Clarke, director of the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.

Tom’s writes that a “significant portion” of the area has already been mined or was part of previous petitions for lands unsuitable declarations.  In addition, the WVDEP letter adds:

A significant portion of the lands identified in your petition has been affected in the past and continued to be affected by oil and gas and logging operations. These activities have great potential to adversely affect the historic integrity of the lands you have identified. A declaration that the lands you have identified are unsuitable for mining would not effectively protect the historic integrity of these lands because it would have no effect on oil and gas and logging operations.

Tom Clarke’s letter concludes:

Because I am rejecting your petition as frivolous, no other findings are being made with respect to it.

So, as far as WVDEP is concerned … that’s the end of the story.

Happy West Virginia Day!

Here’s a great video featuring the incredible Hazel Dickens:



And here’s one of my friend Kathy Mattea singing my personal favorite West Virginia song:

Have a great day everybody!

Alpha speaks on Blair Mountain strip-mining

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal by Kris Maher has the first comments I’ve seen from Alpha Natural Resources about the future of Blair Mountain:

Alpha Natural Resources Inc. of Abingdon, Va., said it doesn’t intend to conduct mountain-top removal in the historic battleground area, but acquired one active operation outside the 1,600-acre boundary when it bought Massey Energy.

“We agree that Blair Mountain is an area of historical significance, and an appropriate commemoration of the 1921 events ought to be considered,” said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. But, he added, a commemoration shouldn’t “abrogate the legal rights of the many property owners and leaseholders in the area.”

Gazette photos by Lawrence Pierce

The Blair Mountain marchers entered their third day today on their trek through Boone and Logan counties, and apparently their effort has run into some problems — and some not-so unexpected opposition to their cause.

The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden reports in today’s paper:

They originally planned to spend Monday night at John Slack Park in Racine, but Boone County Sheriff Rodney Miller told the marchers Monday evening they had to leave the site.

… The marchers ended up walking about 15 miles Tuesday, from Racine to a small park near the intersection of W.Va. 3 and Corridor G, just north of Danville.

They stopped briefly at about 2 p.m. outside the grounds of the Boone Career and Technical Center, part of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College near the town of Foster.

They originally planned to spend Tuesday night on the school’s grounds, but were told by college officials they could not do that.

Rodney Smith, an administrator at the college, said on Tuesday he did not know why the marchers were told they could not stay.

“But we don’t have much grass. Big Earl’s Campground [about five miles north, near Julian] volunteered to let them stay there,” Smith said.

But Stanley said the marchers were told they could not stay there either, and they would have to take shuttles back to Marmet to spend another night there Tuesday.

Interestingly, I had a couple calls from anti-mountaintop removal activists who were really charged up about all of this, alleging that “coal thugs” had injured some of the marchers and stuff like that … at least according to the march’s own website, it thankfully doesn’t appear that any of that was true:

Monday night around 10 oclock the County Commissioner of Boone came to the park to order us to leave the park, overriding prior verbal permission and said that if the Marchers did not leave the park all marchers would be arrested. A small group of vocal counter-protesters added tension to the situation. Police worked with the marchers to evacuate John Slack Park safely.

We decided to leave because we aren’t marching to take a stand at this park, or confront the Boone County Commissioner; we’re here to March on Blair Mountain, confront coal industry power, and demand preservation of Blair Mountain, it’s history, and end MTR.

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