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On Lost Miners

April 16, 2010

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Click image above or here to view slideshow.

When big, terrible news breaks in the backyard of the newspaper where I work, the Charleston Gazette, the staff gets it done. The paper is one of the few remaining small, family-owned newspapers with a kick-ass investigative bent left in the U.S.A. The paper’s long-time coal industry reporter, Ken Ward Jr., is one of the most diligent, savvy newshounds anywhere and you can be sure to find the latest news on the recent Montcoal mine tragedy (no doubt, much of it broken by Ken) in the Gazette and on his lively, essential blog, Coal Tattoo.

That said, as a cultural affairs and artsy-fartsy reporter, so to speak, and a 21st century multimedia editor in an industry still mired in 20th century news-gathering values and practices (except for things like Coal Tattoo), sometimes I don’t have as much to do on the front lines with a breaking, hard news story like last Monday’s Montcoal mine disaster. But I do what I can when I can do it. Like compile this slideshow of AP and staff photos, documenting the terrible aftermath of the disaster which killed 29 men. And when I heard we were doing a story for the Sunday paper to come, depicting photos and small vignettes of the miners killed, I asked to do a memorial slideshow, which you can watch by clicking the image above or right here.

Because I wanted it to be gracefully simple, yet pack a punch, I spent some hours on it late into the night last evening in the Gazette newsroom. I wanted people to confront, especially corporate spin-meisters and apologists, what had been lost. So, it was that I spent hours gazing at the photos of these men, their names and ages etching themselves into my brain. I say men, but among them were two who were hardly out of their boyhood, 20-year-olds like my son. They grew up in coal mining communities where a job underground is a great-paying job in depressed, poor communities where employment behind the corner fast-food fryer may be one of the few other alternatives.

Looking at these boys my son’s age, I couldn’t help but think how the system completely failed them, along with the fathers and uncles and brothers who died down there with them. How the older, wealthy men who run Massey failed them. They sent them underground with promises of a fine paycheck and benefits, but with no promise these elders were really looking out for their real interests, hundreds and hundreds of feet below ground, their lives literally dependent on the boardroom and CEO culture of the company running that mine.

The system and culture of enforcement at the state and federal level also seems to have failed these men and boys. I am sure Ken will let us know how since you can be certain that what happened at that Upper Big Branch mine was a partnership of failure, with powerful interests bending the system in their favor while watchdog regulators raced to keep up. Or not. I imagine we are still feeling the long, cold shadow of the corporate-friendly Bush/Cheney years when it comes to intense regulation of aggressively anti-regulation outfits like Massey Energy and its “What me, worry?” CEO Don Blankenship.

But do take a look at these faces in the memorial  slideshow. As events unfold in the weeks and months ahead, they should be the touchstone as we talk about what needs fixing and who needs to go.

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4 Responses to “On Lost Miners”

  1. Gary Reynolds Says:

    A worthy read. Great job all around.

  2. Steve Says:

    Blaming this terrible tragedy on Bush/Cheney is politicizing to the Nth degree. Shame on you. Blame Massey energy and the mine regulators but it is and has been an ongoing problem for years. And yes, I mean during the Clinton years and before. Stop making this a political issue when it is in fact an issue about the powerful mining lobbyists.

    Any time you can pay a fine for the cost of a human life something is inherently wrong with the system.

  3. admin Says:

    I am not blaming Bush for Montcoal, but the legacy of his administration echoes through the mining industry. But you don’t have to believe me. See this 2007 Washington Monthly article by Ken Ward titled “Shafted: How the Bush administration reversed decades of progress on mine safety.” A notable paragraph: “During [Bush's] tenure, he filled the agency’s top jobs with former industry colleagues, dropped more than a dozen safety proposals initiated during the Clinton administration, and cut almost 200 of the agency’s 1,200 coal mine inspectors. Mine-safety experts have linked many of these actions to the causes of deadly mine accidents since 2001.”

    Of course, keeping the heat on a company like Massey and the spotlight on MSHA is necessary, regardless of whether its the Bush or the Obama-era MSHA, as Ken notes in this detailed blogpost about questions about the agency’s processes:
    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2010/04/14/mshas-computer-glitch-anybody-buying-this/

  4. admin Says:

    Oops, here’s the link to that March 2007 Washington Monthly article by Ken Ward:
    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0703.ward.html