This spring has seen a rash of coal mining accidents and disasters. Companies are in a hurry to get coal out the ground to feed the manufacturing demand for energy.
An accident at the Wangjialing Mine in northern China killed 38 men; an explosion in the Raspadskaya mine in western Siberia killed 66, with 100 injured and 44 still missing.
On April 5, 2010 29 miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The mine is owned and operated by Massey Energy Co., headquartered in Richmond, VA.
In the wake of an April 5th explosion, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, issued a pastoral letter on May 1 on mine safety in West Virginia.
In his letter, On My Holy Mountain, the bishop noted mine disasters in West Virginia: the April 5, 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, the Monongah Mine disaster of 1907 that killed 362 people and the Sago Mine disaster of 2006 that killed 13 miners.
A common thread: lax or disregarded safety regulations in order to speed production.
“The disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine,” the bishop stated, “raises concerns about the conditions within the coal mines across our state and the atmosphere existing in the coal industry’s corporate culture.”
“The church has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity protected. This is an essential part of proclaiming the Gospel of life.”
“Indeed, by virtue of human dignity, all persons have the right to a safe work environment and one in which unsafe conditions can e reported without fear of blacklisting or losing one’s job. Workers have the right to a living wage and to reasonable work hours. The church has long recognized and supported workers’ rights to organize. In the coalfields such organization has had measurable benefits in terms of safety, and we applaud all that the United Mine Workers of America have achieved.”
“We must discover why union mines have a lower fatality rate in West Virginia and appear to have a much better safety record.”
A long-time coal miner who spent the last 15 years at the Massey Energy Co. mine where 29 workers were killed in April said it was a “ticking time bomb” due to high levels of methane gas.
Stanley “Goose” Stewart, who was 300 feet into the mine when he felt a “hurricane strength” wind from the blast, was the first worker at the Upper Big Branch mine to testify publicly about conditions there.
Mr. Stewart, who has been a coal miner for more than 30 years, started keeping a notebook to document his working conditions when the ventilation system was changed last July. “With so much methane being liberated, and no air moving, it gave me the feeling of a ticking time bomb.” In July 2009 he wrote: “finding explosive levels of methane gas regularly.”
Gary Quarles, whose only son, Cary Wayne Quarles, was killed in the accident, said miners weren’t allowed to hang ventilation curtains or conduct any other safety operations if there would interfere with or delay the production of coal.”
Joe Main, the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration told a Senate committee investigating the explosion that Massey thwarted stiffer enforcement action, such as closing down mines with a history of safety violations, by filing a series of appeals. He called on Congress to free up funds to help clear up a backlog of challenges filed by companies.
Mr. Main said Massey escaped tougher enforcement by contesting 78% of the $13.5 million in fines by MSHA in 2009. There are more than 16,000 cases pending review involving 89,000 violations.
Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, denied his company tried to “game the system.” “Rather,” he said, “we are exercising our rights to due process under the system Congress has put in place.”
The issue of mine safety hits close to home with Amber Helms-Chambers and her brother, Nick Helms. Their father, Terry Helms, died in the 2006 Sago Mine explosion.
Chambers is an employee of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese. She helped design the graphics and layout for the pastoral letter, On My Holy Mountain.
“Our uncles that are in the coal mines and our friends are still in the coal mines and I have a cousin going in the coal mines so it is really important to us to work for something that I know my dad was so passionate about as well and working on it just makes me feel that I’m doing my part as a designer doing what I can to help get thoughts out there and help out,” said Chambers.
“Coal-mining laws are written in blood”…”I never understood that saying until after Sago,” Nick Helms said. “Dad would say nothing would ever change until after something bad would happen. It’s a never-ending struggle, but it needs to be a never-ending topic in our government.”
“People were saying, ‘It’s cheaper to pay the fines than to do the safety.’ I know you need to make money, but not at the expense of people’s lives.”
The bishops of Appalachia in their 1975 pastoral letter, This Land is Home to Me recognized that “the coal-based industry created many jobs and brought great progress to our country,” said Bishop Bransfield.
“They also frankly acknowledged that ‘oppression for the mountains’ and suffering for many resulted from tragedies like the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. And they warned that the temptation toward ‘maximization of profit’ can lead to a disregard for human beings and their needs and lead to ‘a new kind of powerlessness.'”