As we sit on the edge of our seats, holding our breath and praying for the lives of four trapped miners and for the loved ones of the 25 lost forever, the nation again becomes aware of coal mining. The pride felt in coal communities, a pride built on the backs of forefathers toiling in unspeakable conditions while building the backbone of our nation, swells large today. With a heavy heart and a tear, we are all reminded of the special people behind the light switch. The brave individuals who, for meager pay, keep the entire nation running. Today, those men and women who work in the shadows are again thrust into the forefront of our minds, if only for a few days or one news cycle.
But while those of us fortunate to still draw air into our lungs go on with our lives, the heartbreak in Montcoal, WV will live on in very real ways, for a very long time. It is in times like these that we all must ask ourselves the important questions. Even during our time to mourn, even during our time to heal, we must strengthen our resolve and work together to make this important industry, an industry that supplies the lifeblood for entire regions of our nation, a safer and more accountable practice.
Massey Energy C.E.O. Don Blankenship is a monster. I have no qualms making this statement, as it is one that I have echoed for years. While dedicated employees risk their lives to create a better world for us all, Blankenship historically and without question flaunts the very regulations and requirements that keep these men and women safe. In six of the past ten years, in just the specific mine in question, Massey recorded an injury rate higher than the national average. In 2009 alone, the Upper Big Branch mine was assessed with $897,325 in fines stemming from 458 specific safety violations, 57 of which came in the last month alone. Many of these violations specifically related to issues within the mine’s ventilation system, the same ventilation system believed to be responsible for the disaster we witness today.
The curious nature of Blankenship’s relationship with enforcement officials can be traced back to the oldest form of politics in history. Cash and carry government. As the nation’s 4th largest energy provider, Massey took in an impressive $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2009, heaping huge salaries on their C.E.O. Embracing the “what’s good for business is good for me” attitude, the wealthy (albeit somewhat eccentric) Blankenship has historically taken a large role in local government. Throughout his dabbles in the political realm, Blankenship has contributed thousands of dollars to pro-deregulation candidates in the state, most visibly sinking millions into a smear campaign against a West Virginia State Supreme Court Justice in 2004. The well funded and well organized attack worked, allowing Blankenship’s candidate a seat on the court, a seat he refused to recuse himself from as a $70 million lawsuit against Massey sat before him.
The long arm of Massey reaches far into the state, even bringing the propaganda machine into the back yards of West Virginians. In 2009, Massey sponsored the “Friends of America Rally,” complete with entertainment from Conservative icons Sean Hannity, Ted Nugent and Hank Williams Jr. The event, free to the public, provided a much needed escape for the local community, all with a very specific political idea behind the curtain. “Our responsibility to the people of Southern West Virginia is to protect jobs not only here in West Virginia but America as well, being the son and grandson of West Virginia coal miners, we must keep these jobs from being regulated out of existence by policies that would harm working families,” read the Massey press release. With a grin and a lawn chair, people listened to “Family Tradition” as the traditions of their own families, the safety regulations that their grandfathers bled for, were slowly chipped away by the highest bidder.
In the case of Massey energy, and those who work each day to skirt the law, individuals are employed to search for loopholes and in many instances flatly refuse to pay fines or bring their workplaces up to code. The time for fines and strongly worded letters has come to an end. How many more courageous, hard working miners must lose their lives before criminal charges are brought against those who would routinely and without conscience endanger their lives to extend the bottom line? How many more rallies must be held to promote deregulation and the loosening of safety standards before we stand up to this injustice?
In the coming days another news cycle will erupt around another issue. There will be a scandal in Washington, there will be a controversy somewhere in the heartland and another politician will say something profoundly absurd. When that happens, we will turn away from the victims of this disaster, compartmentalizing the sadness and empathy we feel for the families in order to move on to the next water cooler topic. For those in Southern West Virginia, the time to mourn is only beginning, and no amount of Washington posturing is going to erase the incredible sadness that permeates the air. I ask you only for one small consideration before we all move back to worrying about Lindsey Lohan, the upcoming baseball season or the next battle between Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck: I ask you to remember the sacrifice so many make for our convenience. Because in many ways, the coal industry has changed in the past 100 years, but in many others it remains exactly the same.