Coal Tattoo

Blair Mountain March gets started

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)

My buddy Dr. Paul Nyden on Sunday previewed the start of the March on Blair Mountain:

More than 600 people are expected to begin a 50-mile march from Marmet to Blair Mountain on Monday to protest mountaintop removal mining.

The five-day event comes close to the 90th anniversary of the historic Battle of Blair Mountain, where more than 10,000 union miners marched from Marmet to help organize non-union coal mines in Logan and Mingo counties.

In 1921, the march from Aug. 24 through Sept. 4 was the largest armed confrontation in United States labor history. It ended when federal troops were sent into the area.

This year’s event is “to demand sustainable job creation in all Appalachian communities, abolish mountaintop removal, strengthen labor rights and preserve Blair Mountain,” the groups Appalachia Rising and the Blair Mountain Coalition said on the march website.

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Sad news: Hazel Dickens has died

The Washington Post is reporting the sad news — mentioned to me by several readers earlier today — that legendary singer Hazel Dickens has died:

Ms. Dickens grew up in dire poverty in West Virginia’s coal country and developed a raw, keening style of singing that was filled with the pain of her hardscrabble youth. She supported herself in day jobs for many years before she was heard on the soundtrack of the 1976 Oscar-winning documentary about coal mining, ”Harlan County, U.S.A.”

Her uncompromising songs about coal mining, such as “Black Lung” and “They Can’t Keep Us Down,” became anthems, and she was among the first to sing of the plight of women trying to get by in the working-class world. She was a longtime Washington resident and became a key influence on such later singing stars as Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss and the Judds.

My friend Kate Long has a longer story about Hazel that’s posted on the website of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame here. And here’s some music:

And a clip from Mimi Pickering’s Appalshop film, “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song”:

And of course …

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More legal news that I didn’t get to on Friday: The United Mine Workers of America union has filed a motion asking to have its say in the Sierra Club’s lawsuit seeking to put Blair Mountain back on the National Register of Historic Places.

In their motion, lawyers for the UMWA explain the significance of the 1921 battle:

Though the UMWA miners who marked to Blair Mountain were defeated in battle, their stand paved the way for legislative and collective bargaining achievements in the first half of the twentieth century that helped build the American middle class.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was perhaps the most significant of a number of episodes of  “industrial strife and unrest” that Congress eventually sought to prevent by creating a legal framework for worker organization and peaceful resolution of industrial disputes.

And in their proposed “friend of the court” brief, the UMWA lawyers back the Sierra Club’s view that “powerful coal companies have undermined the process for nomination of Blair Mountain Battlefield to the National Register”:

It is beyond dispute that powerful coal companies continue to wield considerable influence over the economy and politics in West Virginia and beyond. Indeed, the instant matter demonstrates that the present-day administration of federal statutes in the state is not immune from such influence.

I’ve posted the UMWA’s court documents here.

UPDATED:  Here’s a link to Dr. Paul Nyden’s Gazette story about this Blair Mountain march announcement.

The folks from the Friends of Blair Mountain are set to announce later today their plans for a “a massive non-violent five-day march” from Marmet to Logan County to call attention to their efforts to preserve the site of the 1921 labor battle.

According to a press advisory about today’s event:

Speakers will include: Denise Giardina, acclaimed Appalachian writer; Mari-Lynn Evans, 2010 Appalachian filmmaker of the Year; Ken Hechler, statesman and former WV Secretary of State; Chuck Nelson, activist and retired UMWA miner; Terry Steele, retired UMWA miner; Wilma Steele, Mingo County art teacher; Chuck Keeney, professor at Southern WV Community and Technical College, great-grandson of famed UMWA Leader Frank Keeney; Jesse Johnson, Executive Committee member and former chair of the environmentalist Mountain Party; Mickey McCoy, member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and former Mayor of Inez, Kentucky; and Paul Corbit Brown, photojournalist and Frontline Human Rights Defenders Top 100 Human Rights Defenders in the World.

The march itself is scheduled for early June, and the news advisory explained it this way:

March planners believe that current plans to mountaintop removal mine Blair Mountain would dishonor the memory of the miners who sacrificed their lives for the right to collectively bargain. Citizens and organizers assert that if mining permits move forward on Blair Mountain, the most significant heritage site in Appalachia will be destroyed and the communities around Blair Mountain will be irreparably and adversely affected.

Citizens will march in support of preserving Blair Mountain and abolishing mountaintop removal in all of Appalachia. The march is additionally planned in support of strengthening labor rights nationwide and investing in sustainable job creation for all communities.

You can watch today’s announcement via live Web streaming here.

Buffalo Creek, Feb. 26, 1972

Here’s part of  “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on the Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community,” which we posted online back in 1997 as part of Voices of Buffalo Creek, a series to mark the 25th anniversary of this terrible disaster:

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 Appalachian — 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 .

There is a basic question raised anew by Buffalo Creek, the latest assault by the coal operators in their long slaughterhouse in death, injury and disease: Whether the people of Appalachia and West Virginia can any longer afford this senseless destruction of their lives, their land, and their democratic institutions; or whether the ownership and operation of coal mines should be brought under democratic control to benefit all the people. All to clearly the tragedy of Buffalo Creek has torn away the mask, revealing the ugly truth that powerful coal interests dominate the government, the environment, and the West Virginia way of life to the detriment of all citizens. Discussion and action are needed now to transform King Coal, the tyrant, into Citizen Coal, the servant of all — before and not after another Buffalo Creek disaster.

Hey folks, I’ve been out for a few days and am catching up on things. I wanted to make sure Coal Tattoo readers didn’t miss this commentary from United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, published first on the Perspectives page of the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

When my great-uncle Bill Blizzard marched up the side of Blair Mountain with several thousand other coal miners in the late summer of 1921, he wasn’t thinking about the coal that lay within the mountain. He wasn’t thinking about whether the streams along the base of the mountain ran clear or not.

He was thinking instead about the murder of his friend Sid Hatfield by Baldwin-Felts thugs just a few weeks before. He was thinking about the near-slavery conditions coal miners and their families were forced to endure. He was thinking about how to make their lives better.

It’s important for Americans to remember the events that occurred on the slopes of Blair Mountain those fateful days, for it is a compelling and historically significant story of struggle against oppression. That story cannot be told nearly as well if the mountain is not there.

Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the UMWA. Though we may not physically own the mountain’s land, its legacy is ours. We strongly support its preservation, for it represents the power ordinary people have when they decide to stick together and take up common struggle for the benefit of all. That is the essence of who we are as union members.

Today, West Virginians are still thinking about coal miners’ jobs, and about how to make their lives and their communities better. But we are also thinking about the coal under Blair Mountain and surrounding ridges, and what ought to be done with it. And we are thinking about whether the water runs clear, not just for the fish, but for the people as well.

These are critical times in the coalfields. For coal miners, our families, our relatives, our friends and our neighbors, the decisions we make and the actions we take will determine not just how we live, but how our descendants will live for generations to come.

We must do our best to make the right decisions. And as we do, we must also realize (just as those miners did so many years ago) that although we may not agree on everything, we are all in this together. Failure to do so puts us at the mercy of those who would use our differences to divide us, allowing them to reap their own, selfish rewards at our expense.

So let us start.

Let us start by recognizing the dignity of work, and the fact that those who mine coal, by whatever method, do so because they seek to provide for themselves and their families. And let us also recognize that when the UMWA represents any workers anywhere, we have a duty to defend every one of their jobs and make them the best jobs they can be.

Let us start by recognizing that coal operators have a responsibility to make the jobs of their workers as safe as possible. And they have a responsibility to respect their neighbors and do all in their power to minimize any damage that may be done to the environment as a result of their operations. And they further have a responsibility to repair any damage they do cause.

Let us start by recognizing that if the operators do not fulfill those responsibilities, then someone has to make them do so, most often the federal or state government, or both. The last thing any of us in the coalfields should desire is to go back to the days when coal operators were allowed to do anything they wanted with no consequences. That’s how Bill Blizzard ended up at Blair Mountain, after all.

Let us start by recognizing that the government has a critical role to play, because for too long, far too many coal operators have not respected their workers, not respected their neighbors, not cared about the damage their operations may have done and not cared to repair that damage once it was done.

Let us start by recognizing that whatever role government does play, it has a responsibility to take into account the impact of its actions on all concerned. And government has a responsibility to seek ways for coalfield residents, including miners and their communities, to benefit, not suffer, from its actions.

Let us start by recognizing that there will be changes in the way our nation and our world generate electricity over the next century. We don’t yet know what form this change will take, nor how fast it will happen. We do know that there are not currently enough other sources of energy (whether other fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, biofuels or anything else) to replace the energy we create from coal to feed a growing demand in America, much less the world.

Let us start by recognizing that at some point in our future (perhaps decades from now, perhaps centuries from now (the coal will run out or will become too expensive to mine. Between now and then, it is our task to do all we can to develop ways to use coal responsibly and cleanly to power our nation and our world.

And let us start by reaffirming that all God’s children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment (at home and on the job) where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated solely by profit at any cost.

I believe that, working together, we can develop an environmentally sound and economically secure way forward for those who live and work in the coalfields of central Appalachia, one that does not merely celebrate the heritage of coal but embraces its future. If we are to live by the lesson of Blair Mountain, standing together to create a better future for all our children and grandchildren, we really don’t have any other choice.

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years today since the explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., that killed these 12 men and nearly killed their coworker, Randal McCloy.

Their names, from left to right and top to bottom:

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.

And after three other major mining accidents that followed — Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon — it’s even harder to believe that 2010 turned out to be still worse.

Twenty-nine West Virginia coal miners died in the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, and through late last week, 19 other U.S. coal miners had been killed on the job in 2010. Nationwide, it’s the deadliest year for the coal industry since 1992. Here in West Virginia, the 35 coal-mining deaths through Dec. 29 ranked as the worst year since 1979.

What MSHA chief Joe Main said recently about the Upper Big Branch families undoubtedly is true for the families of all of these fallen miners:

No one knows the real suffering and pain that these folks go through. It’s awful. Life changed forever for them.

And as I’ve said before, it’s always worth remembering these words from the last 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.

Update on Centralia: Another lawsuit filed

In this Feb. 14, 1981, file photo, Todd Domboski, 12, of Centralia, Pa., looks over a barricade at the hole he fell through just hours before this photo was taken in Centralia, Pa. The hole was cause by a mine fire that had been burning since 1962.

Here’s an update on the litigation surrounding the forced evacuation of the Pennsylvania town of Centralia (see previous posts here and here):


Associated Press Writer

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Residents of a central Pennsylvania coal town decimated by a mine fire have gone to federal court in an effort to prevent state officials from evicting them from their homes.

Centralia’s few remaining residents lodged a civil rights complaint against the state Department of Community and Economic Development and other defendants, alleging a conspiracy to steal the mineral rights to billions of dollars worth of anthracite coal.

The residents asked a federal judge Friday for an injunction that would bar the state from proceeding with eminent domain while their lawsuit, filed earlier this week, is being heard.

Most of Centralia was demolished in the 1980s after the slow-burning fire that began in 1962 at the town dump spread to the underground network of coal mines, threatening residents with poisoning gases and dangerous sinkholes.

Only a handful of people remain in Centralia, resisting the state’s efforts to get them to leave.

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The highlight of this morning’s press conference at the Capitol had to be when West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin invoked “the spirit of Sen. Robert C. Byrd” in filing a lawsuit to challenge the Obama administration’s effort to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Gov. Manchin pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and read aloud the 10th Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

First, despite some of the lawsuit’s rhetoric about how EPA has “invaded and usurped” the state’s authority to regulate coal mining, this suit really isn’t strictly speaking a 10th Amendment case.  You have to wonder, though, given how hard the state fought (using the 11th Amendment) to get out of federal court in the Bragg mountaintop removal case, why does the Manchin administration now turn to a federal judge for help?

But you also have to wonder if Sen. Byrd would have endorsed this sort of lawsuit, given his last few detailed public statements about mountaintop removal and climate change.

In his “Embrace the Future” commentary, for example, Sen. Byrd said:

Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive … when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit … West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

And in a later commentary, while he said that, “the sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected,” I’m not sure Sen. Byrd was talking about EPA being the one that needed to do the respecting:

The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities. Our coal mining communities do not have to be marked by a lack of economic diversity and development that can potentially squelch the voice of the people. People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.

A collection of respected historians, authors and artists has put together a petition urging protection for Blair Mountain. Among those involved are historian Ron Lewis, filmmakers Barbara Kopple and John Sayles, and singer Hazel Dickens. Here’s the text of the petition:

As citizens concerned with the faithful representation of America’s rich and often turbulent national history, and as scholars and artists whose work has touched upon the history of coal mining labor in West Virginia and beyond, we write to express our strong opposition to the National Park Service’s de-listing of Blair Mountain as a site of national historic significance, and to support the legal challenge to that decision launched by the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Friends of Blair Mountain and the West Virginia Labor History Association. Many of us have worked productively with the Park Service in public history and heritage preservation projects in the past, and are hopeful that this mistaken decision can be quickly reversed.

As you are no doubt aware, Blair Mountain is the site of the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War, and one of the most significant events in American labor history. In 1993 a Congressionally-mandated ‘Labor History Theme Study’ by ten historians for the National Landmarks Program recommended Blair Mountain as a landmark site. Both the site’s importance in our national history and the urgency of adopting energetic measures to preserve it were recognized again in 2006, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Blair Mountain one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The National Park Service seemed to accept that logic when, in March 2009, it included Blair Mountain in the National Register of Historic Places. We are deeply concerned at the reversal of that decision in the face of pressure from coal companies eager to strip mine the area, and alarmed by very recent reports that mining equipment is already being moved onto the site. We therefore respectfully urge the National Park Service to immediately re-list Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places.

Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

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., four years ago.

After a visit to Brookwood, Alabama, four years ago, I wrote these paragraphs as part of a story about coal-dust problems being among the most common violations in America’s coal mines:

On a September afternoon in 2001, 32 miners repaired drilling machines and hoisted tunnel supports into place at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine. The mine is North America’s deepest, tracking the 6-foot-high Blue Creek seam almost a half-mile beneath the rolling hills just east of Tuscaloosa.

At about 5:20 p.m., a chunk of mine roof fell onto a battery charger deep underground. The impact set off a spark, igniting a pocket of methane gas. Four miners were injured, and co-workers rushed to their aid.

Then, at 6:15 p.m., a second, far larger explosion tore through the mine. Thirteen miners died, making it the nation’s worst coal-mining disaster in 17 years.

Today is the 9th anniversary of the disaster at Jim Walter No. 5, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the folks I met during that trip.  I had wanted to visit the Alabama coalfields in part because of the stories I heard about the area from my friend and former Gazette reporter Robert Woodrum, who turned his dissertation on Alabama coal miners into the book, Everybody Was Black Down There: Race and Industrial Change in the Alabama Coalfields.

There were also West Virginia connections to the disaster. Two of the miners who died, Sammy Joe Riggs and Joseph Sorah, were originally from here.
Sorah was the brother of Nelson Sorah, who was the Gazette’s city editor when I interned here in 1989.

As it turned out, going to Alabama also helped me report on some of the warning signs that were ignored by mining regulators and the industry about lightning strikes and problems with underground mine seals — warning signs that, if heeded, might have presented the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster and maybe the Kentucky Darby Disaster as well.

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.

They’ll  have a little memorial service in Brookwood again today, to remember the dead and honor their memories. I certainly recall what Darryl Dewberry, vice president of Alabama’s UMWA District 20, told the crowd at the 2006 memorial service that I attended:

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

Happy Labor Day

In this TV grab taken from a video released by Chile’s government on Tuesday, Aug. 31, a miner smiles as he gestures inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile. Thirty-three miners have been trapped since the mine collapsed on Aug. 5. (AP Photo/Chile’s government)

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, Wikipedia,  or the AFL-CIO.

My buddy Dr. Paul Nyden had an update in today’s Gazette about the battle over efforts to protect historic Blair Mountain in Logan County, W.Va. Dr. Nyden reports:

The interim keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has denied a petition asking her to reconsider the removal of the historic Blair Mountain battlefield site from the national register.

But the interim keeper, Carol D. Shull, said the controversy surrounding the site could be best addressed by renominating the site for the National Register. She encouraged West Virginia state officials to do that.

Lights on top of West Virginia’s Capitol dome were turned off this week in memory of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

“Our lord we thank you for our senator who has left a tremendous legacy so that our mountains will continue to feel the gentle steps of those who love them, that his legacy will be our rolling hills and they will continue to hear the sound of mountain music.” — Brad Reed, W.Va. Army Guard Chaplain

That was part of the prayer offered last evening at the brief ceremony when Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s funeral procession reached the south steps of the state Capitol here in Charleston.

There’s been so much written and said about Sen. Byrd in the last week that perhaps it’s pointless to try to write or say much more. But while the words of that prayer could be read many ways (watch the whole thing on C-Span), they certainly got me thinking about the important unfinished business political leaders in West Virginia’s coalfields have before them in the wake of Sen. Byrd’s passing.

— First, Congress is still going around and around on a climate change/energy bill, and it’s hard to know exactly what direction that discussion is going. But what role will West Virginia’s remaining political leaders play? Will they, to paraphrase Sen. Byrd, “stick their heads in the sand” and continue to dispute the science and ignore the need to make meaningful reductions in coal’s greenhouse gas emissions?

The state’s best hope in this regard is probably Sen. Jay Rockefeller, whose role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation puts him in a key role in the debate. While he’s insisted he doesn’t argue the science, Sen. Rockefeller has voted otherwise, and his public statements have indicated he’s very intent on not doing anything that someone like Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship might be able to attack as “anti-coal.”

Sen. Rockefeller was among those who attended a key White House meeting earlier this week about the energy and climate change issue, and this is what his office put out to describe his participation:

Senator Rockefeller did attend the White House meeting, which is part of the ongoing discussion about the future of energy legislation. Senator Rockefeller made clear to the President – as he has before – that, for him, energy discussions start and stop with the economy and jobs and he will not support any bill that hurts West Virginia families. He appreciates the ongoing dialogue with the White House and with his colleagues on both sides of this aisle on this important issue and believes these discussions will and should continue.

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Photo by Jim Noelker

This is from Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s autobiography, “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields“:

… When the steamboats and the railroads came, and when industry began to ply its way into the hills and winding hollows, workers came to the mountains of West Virginia from Continental Europe — Italians, Hungarians, Spaniards, Germans, Czechoslovakians, Greeks, Poles — and the British Isles. Many migrated from southern states, mostly Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Blacks came from the southern cotton fields. These were the hearty souls who built the railroads, drove tunnels through the mountains, and plied the rivers with rafts and flatboats to open the region to commerce with the outside world. They built the state and developed it mainly on the economy of coal. Their sons went off to fight in World War I and World War II. In the 1920s, they fought in the mine wars …

… It is a state whose rich resources have been largely owned and exploited by outside interests. Absentee owners, while living outside the state, wrested from the West Virginia earth the wealth that made them rich — rich from the toil and sweat and blood and tears of the people in the hill country who worked out their lives, all too often, for a pittance.

West Virginia is the story of a people who lived in isolation, whose wish was to be left alone and to be able to raise their families, to be at peace, and to worship the God of their fathers. It is the story of a people who would be misunderstood and all too frequently disparagingly portrayed as ignorant ‘hillbillies.’

This was the West Virginia to which I came … and it was a state in whose southern coalfields my formative years would be spent, a state in which coal reigned, because Coal was King! In “The Conduct of Life,” Emerson wrote of its widespread sovereignty:

“We may well call it [coal] black diamonds. Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting whithersoever it is wanted.”

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Here’s a statement issued this morning by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis:

Few people ever really earn the right to be called a legend; however, Sen. Robert Byrd earned it every day. For decades, the people of the Mountain State knew they had a true friend and someone who would fight for them and their families.

I had the pleasure of working with Sen. Byrd on issues that impacted our nation’s coal miners and their families. As the son of a coal miner, Sen. Byrd understood that we have a moral obligation to protect the men and women who go underground every day to dig the coal that fuels our economy, and to ensure that those men and women return safely to their loved ones after every shift.

He was a compassionate and dedicated public servant who defended the Constitution every day in the Senate. His leadership, patriotism and wisdom will be missed.

Here’s a speech Sen. Robert C. Byrd gave after the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters of 2006:

Madam President, while the Senate was in recess, the State of West Virginia lost 14 proud sons.

On January 2, 13 hard-working, God-fearing men were simply earning their daily bread at the Sago coal mine in Upshur County, WV, when an explosion killed 1 man and trapped 12 others 260 feet below its surface. For 41 long hours, these men waited for help. They waited, they waited, they waited, and they prayed. They wrote farewell messages to their loved ones. How gripping. They waited as the air they breathed gave out and their lungs filled with toxic gases.

Above the ground, we all prayed for a miracle such as we had enjoyed with the nine miners who had been trapped at the mine at Quecreek, PA, in 2002 and were found alive. But this time, there was only one miracle. My wife Erma and I, like many others in my great State of West Virginia, continue to pray for the recovery of the sole survivor of the Sago explosion, Mr. Randal McCloy, Jr. But tragically, there were no miracles for Tom Anderson, Alva Bennett, Jim Bennett, Jerry Groves, George “Junior” Hammer, Terry Helms, Jesse Jones, David Lewis, Martin Toler, Jr., Fred Ware, Jr., Jackie Weaver, and Marshall Winans. Once again, a small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and an entire State wept with them.

And then, incredibly, 17 days later, a mine fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County, WV, trapping two miners underground. In shock and disbelief, the State once again fell to its knees and prayed and pleaded for a miracle. Forty hours later, we learned that two more miners–Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield–had perished. Another small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and again an entire State wept with them.

Once again, the national media rushed in to report the disaster to the world. Once again, editorials filled newspapers across the country decrying the dangers of mining coal, denouncing the callousness of coal companies, and questioning the commitment of State and Federal officials to mine safety.

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

First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster. But not this time.

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Sen. Byrd speaks: ‘My first speech’

This is from Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s autobiography, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields:

During my first term in the legislature, I introduced a bill to liberalize workmen’s compensation payments. Having grown up in a coal miner’s home, I knew the needs of miners, and I knew the time had come to increase workmen’s compensation benefits. Under the provisions of my bill, widows were to be given a ten-dollar increase per month, making the total forty dollars instead of thirty. Dependent children in 1947 were receiving ten dollars monthly until they reached the age of  sixteen.

Under the bill which I introduced, there would be an extension of two years in their payments: They would, therefore, be paid until they became eighteen. In other words, there would be no increase in the monthly amount paid to these children, but they would benefit from the payments two years longer. It was a very moderate bill, but even with such a moderate increase in payments to widows and the extension of two additional years of benefits to dependent children, such legislation faced strong opposition from coal companies and other industries.

I spent several hours preparing my speech on the Workmen’s Compensation Bill, and I then memorized it. The issue here was the human element versus the dollar, I said. “To me, the dollar is secondary; human misery and suffering, and the welfare of helpless, dependent children come first.”

I went on to point out that during the quarter-century since the last increase in payments to widows, industry had made “great gains and increasing profits.” This was all well and good, I said, and I was glad to see a healthy and growing industry, but “when a man makes the supreme investment in laying down his life, then I believe industry owes his wife and dependent children a fair living in return for the priceless treasure they have lost forever.”

Still pursuing the theme, I said, “A man’s stature is not measured by his wealth or his social standing, but by the depth of his character and the kindness shown to others out of his heart. He is measured by the stand he takes on the great moral questions of the day, and to be always found on the right side is within itself a noble achievement.” In saying so, I realized that many of the more seasoned legislators were listening attentively, perhaps our of respect for my newness to the legislative battlefield. While a few might have regarded my words as presumptuous or even grandiloquent, I knew, nevertheless, that my cause was right and just.

Then, referring to the Bible and its teachings, I said, “On this question, I think of the Master who as a young man walked the hills of Judea two thousand years ago; who always went about doing good; healing the lame and the afflicted, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the multitude, and raising the dead to life — whose heart was ever moved with pity and filled with sympathy and compassion for those in extreme distress and suffering. The Master did not think of the cost in monetary terms, but always and only of the cost in human misery.”

Then I mused openly as to what Christ’s words might be to those delegates who sat around me. “My friends, search your hearts and your conscience for the right. Life is but a fleeting moment in the annals of time and eternity, and as we go out, we must go before the great Bar of Justice. We must answer for our actions here and we shall hear the Great Eternal Judge say, ‘the liberal soul shall be made fat; and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.'”

… My bill passed the House that night, but it never became law …

Here is a statement issued today by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts:

The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families and communities have lost their best friend in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

A son of the West Virginia mountains who married into a coal-mining family, Sen. Byrd dedicated his entire life to making things better for coal miners everywhere. He was a champion of the 1969 Coal Miner Health and Safety Act, and convinced President Nixon not to veto the bill. In the 40 years prior to its passage, 32,000 miners lost their lives on the job. In the 40 years since, that number stands at slightly more than 3,200. One could argue that thanks to Sen. Byrd’s efforts, 29,000 lives were saved.

Since that time, Sen. Byrd consistently fought for additional protections for miners. He led the charge to secure the 1977 revisions to the 1969 Act. He fought in 1992 to continue health care benefits for mining families, and many times since then to secure funding, so that today, 100,000 UMWA members are still getting benefits. He relentlessly pushed for answers in the Aracoma and Sago disasters to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. And he fought for enhanced Black Lung benefits his entire life.

Despite failing health, Sen. Byrd fought to the very end to improve miners’ lives. Last spring, his amendments to the health care bill restored the process of miners getting – and their widows keeping – black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this terrible disease. And just last month, he grilled Massey CEO Don Blankenship during a Senate hearing he led into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

All of us from the coalfields have lost our best friend in Robert C. Byrd. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.


The news Sunday that Sen. Robert C. Byrd was in the hospital in very serious condition prompted some of the standard political speculation about Gov. Joe Manchin’s possible designs on Sen. Byrd’s seat, including from and from FiveThirtyEight.

But also interesting, following the sad news this morning of Sen. Byrd’s passing, were these remarks in an Associated Press story in which Manchin said he had no plans to appoint himself to even temporarily replace The legendary senator:

Manchin says his decision will be an important one because of the effects climate change and mining debates in Congress and at the federal level will have on the state.

An important decision? Certainly. But Coal Tattoo readers know well that Gov. Manchin and Sen. Byrd didn’t exactly see eye to eye on climate change, mountaintop removal, or how our state should navigate the hurdles facing the future of our coal industry.

I asked Sara Payne, Manchin’s communications director, if the governor would have a litmus test for appointing a temporary successor to Byrd … would he pick only someone whose views on these matters mirror those of the governor?

The governor is not even thinking about an appointment right now … that is the furthest thing from his mind at this time. His focus is on honoring the senator and his contributions.

With that being said, it is my understanding that the governor was just speaking in general about how there are a lot of important things coming through Washington that directly relate to our state, and mining and climate are simply some examples.

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