Natural Disasters, Unnatural People?

A few stories regarding the coal industry have caught my eye and, despite my being a few weeks late to the party, I think each deserves more attention:

Investigators apparently have evidence that Massey Energy kept fake safety records for Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. This comes from the Mine Safety and Health Administration who showed the records to families of the killed miners. Regarding the explosion, the MSHA findings point towards a small methane explosion caused by a spark from a cutting head. That explosion grew exponentially thanks to the unsafe build up of coal dust in the mine. This, of course, goes against Massey’s claim that the explosion was a natural disaster rather than something preventable through safety measures.

It stands to reason that Massey would make this claim. It is, after all, in their interest. Natural disasters through the very label become something unpreventable. They are a fact of life and the loss of life through them in turn becomes inevitable. Certainly this isn’t a new idea and I’m not the first to point out this tactic. Nevertheless, it’s important to state exactly what this rhetoric does in regards to the safety of miners and to the responsibility of Massey and the coal industry as a whole. It is, frankly, the largest cop out possible. Nothing about coal mining is “natural.” You’re digging tunnels deep into mountains to retrieve minerals to burn to produce energy. It is a thoroughly industrialized process and an intervention (for better or worse – though obviously I lean towards worse) of human beings into incredibly dangerous territory. To say that the dangers are natural then suggests that they are unpreventable, exactly what the MSHA’s findings refute.

There’s another side of this tactic and it’s one that the mining industry (or in this case a law firm representing it) has deployed recently as well. (As first reported here and picked up by Mother Jones here) In response to a recent study showing the increased chance of birth defects among populations living near mountaintop removal operations the law firm of Crowell & Moring has stated that the study did not take into account consanguinity. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the term consanguinity the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr.  has done us the favor of finding out: Consanguinity refers to the level of shared ancestry. In other words, the level of inbreeding.

Ward’s post about this has a excellent explanation of Crowell & Moring’s use of the term and it’s well worth a read in its entirety. Once again I want to focus on the rhetoric. There’s a clear insinuation pulling on an old and much refuted stereotype that the residents of the Appalachian coal fields are inbreeding. Hence they become “unnatural” in their behavior and the cause for their own problems. As such, if we accept this line of reasoning, the people suffering birth defects in this region are to be the subject of our collective scorn rather than MTR. This tactic pulls on an old and much refuted stereotype in an underhanded effort to refute a study pointing towards the detrimental effects of the coal industry on the region and its inhabitants.

Again, not a new tactic. Still, it’s imperative to point out these tactics whenever they crop up. The rhetoric is simply too powerful to let slip by unchallenged. They must be called out as the insidious and deceitful tactics that they are.

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