Thursday, April 08, 2010

Welcome to 1967

Last Monday night, I was preparing to go to a dinner party at a friend's. (Yes, I finally have friends here.) I heard a teaser on the local evening news: "Hear the latest on the rescue efforts for the West Virginia miners." When you hear that on a station outside of West Virginia, that is not good. I called my sweetie and asked what he knew. He told me the general location. "Don't tell me; let me guess. A Massey mine?" I asked. "How'd you ever know?" he said. "Just a lucky guess."

I was not the best of company at the dinner party. I kept excusing myself to check Facebook and the news to see what was going on. West Virginia is such a small place that even though it was not my area, I knew that friends of friends, at least, were affected. For that story, read Buzzard Billy's account. Later I heard that a sweet little boy that I had babysat did contract work at that mine a few years back. It could have been him.

That's why I was just sick. Today Upper Big Branch, tomorrow Robinson Run (where a friend that was like a big brother to me works) or someplace closer to home. Mining is a dangerous business.

But it doesn't have to be.

All explosions are preventable. When there is an explosion, that is an indication that something went terribly wrong. Those aren't my words: they are the words of Kevin Strickin, MSHA administrator for West Virginia. (They're not in quotes becuase I can't find the exact citation, but I'm pretty sure it's from the Charleston Gazette. Once you see the number of stories there, you'll forgive me.)

Yes, coal mining is a dangerous operation. It's not that the mines are located miles (yes, miles) underground. The very processes that form coal contribute to this danger. Coal and methane, a highly explosive gas, occur in close proximity more often that not. Even if methane does not explode, it is an odorless, colorless gas that can be inhaled but is not breathable. The proverbial canary's function in the coal mine was to warn miners of methane. If the canary passed out, the miners got out ASAP.

An obvious by-product of coal, coal dust,not only gets all over everything (including miners' lungs), but it also is highly volatile. The smallest spark from a mantrip hitting a steel track can spark an explosion. This is not a place for the overly fearful.

But these dangers can be avoided. After the Sago disaster, some rumors began to spread about methane in the area. I asked Dad, who had worked at a mine (not in a mine, which is an important distinction) about methane. The way to avoid a methane-related disaster is to measure methane and pull the miners out until it can be ventilated. That did not happen in this case. Why? Good question. Over the past two years (not even, as this covers 2009 and 2010), Massey was cited for over 61 major violations of MSHA code. On this mine alone. These are not violations such as a wastebasket in the wrong place or a report wasn't signed off on properly. No, these were the-mine-should-have-been-closed violations, including methane buildup, excessive coal dust, and excessive carbon dioxide.

Well, why was the mine not closed, then? One word: the owner. It's Don Blankenship, who is a coal baron in the old-school way. Scroll down past his accomplishments to "criticism," and you'll get some idea. Or better yet, watch this video originally aired on Rachel Maddow.

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Rachel gets it as do few others from out of the area. It's all true. But it sounds too incredible to be true.

Which brings me to the title of this post. In November 1968, the Farmington Mine blew. You may remember when I wrote about the 40th anniversary. The only good thing to come out of that disaster was the formation of MSHA and the passage to laws to protect miners' safety. The four miners still in Upper Big Branch, much as I hate to say it, cannot have survived. Which makes this the biggest disaster since Farmington. You know, the disaster they said would be the last.

I hope this has been coherent, at least. I've been sad, worried, and angry in turn since Monday evening. I continue to pray for the miners and their families, but I think it's all done except for the recovery.

There is so much more I'd like to say, but I think I'll give it a few days.