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When I was a young man of 19 years I first ventured from my home in Wisconsin to the Appalachians thinking I was going there to find banjo players. I found much more. I found families and communities that welcomed me into their homes and hearts, began to claim me as an adopted son, and will forever have a place in my own heart. Most of the first places I landed were coal-mining communities and I quickly became familiar with the routine and the risks of this industry and the people who help make our nation run. So it is with more than a little personal interest that I have read any news from the coalfields the nearly forty years since.
In early April the worst coal mining disaster in a generation occurred in the West Virginia community of Montcoal. Twenty-nine miners were killed in a giant methane explosion. Continuing high methane levels prevented rescue workers from entering the areas where they hoped to recover the remains of those miners. Massey Energy Company, the largest coal company in central Appalachia operates the Upper Big Branch mine and has been cited for years for dangerously high levels and methane, coal dust, and inadequate ventilation. But surviving miners asked for anonymity in relating past concerns regarding mine safety for fear of losing their jobs.
Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine. Such miners who dare to complain about safety conditions have no protection against company retaliation. Nor do they have the leverage that union representation can provide in forcing what the company will not do and what the government, it’s been proven, cannot do. To put this into perspective, the disaster that occurred at the Sago, WV mine in January 2006 occurred in a non-union mine on a federal holiday. There wasn’t a union miner in America working on that day. Until they reported for the rescue team at Sago.
Condolences are not enough anymore. Nor is outrage response enough to yet another, admittedly, preventable tragedy. Support for the rights of workers to report safety concerns without fear of intimidation and dismissal should come from all corners of society. Massey’s pathetic offer to pay for miners’ funerals should be coupled with a demand that they finally pay the millions of dollars of fines they have fought for years. Most importantly, they should be forced to abide by the most basic operating standards for mine safety. Anything less is worse than negligence. It is nothing short of murder.