Tag Archives: coal mining

Resurgent Black Lung

NPR, the Charleston Gazette and The Center for Public Integrity have compiled a series of important stories about resurgence of Black Lung Disease among coal miners and miners operating in Appalachian regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia in particular. There is a lot of overlap in the stories I’ve linked above, but the information compiled in these stories is damning. In short, the resurgence of Black Lung points towards inadequate regulation and enforcement of worker safety laws in the mines. The newfound prevalence of this issue rams home once again the dangers in mining and the numerous ways these dangers are exacerbated through negligence by mining companies and government programs. Black Lung is the long debilitating disease that eventually kills its victims by destroying their ability to breathe. You can get a feel for the nature of the disease in the quote from Mark McCowan in the NPR article:

“Now it feels like I’ve got a heavy wet sack on each lung,” McCowan says, between long, deep breaths. “Breathing has become a conscious effort. … It seems like I give up a little bit of my world each day, that it gets smaller and smaller.”

Black Lung is a symbolically fitting as a disease tied directly to mining. Like our societal dependence on coal itself, the continuing presence of Black Lung reminds us that coal is a killer in the long term no matter what our efforts to “clean up.” In the immediate future, the issue of Black Lung should be addressed on a legislative level, but as Ken Ward Jr. reports, easier said than done. (This may sound like I’m drawing a hard line on coal, and to an extent I am. Still I want to be a bit more nuanced. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe there’s a complete answer to our dependence on coal yet, but that any answer that we come up with needs to take into account the economic stability of regions that have historically suffered the boom and bust cycles of mining. Moreover, my immediate focus is on worker safety issues.)

In other coal related news, the New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Jason Howard about the civil war raging in coal country regarding mining and MTR in particular. It serves as a good introduction to the stakes in this issue. (Thanks to Marcus for the link.)

For readers in Oregon, I also point to some coal issues closer to home via the Register Guard.

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Slow Burn in Centralia

Fifty years ago today, workers in Centralia, PA, began burning trash at a site over an old mine entrance just outside of the town. That fire is still burning to this day. The fire ignited the coal and then continued to spread underground. Officials spent twenty years trying to put it out, but each effort failed. Eventually, between gasses it releases, and the extreme heat and pressures that causes the ground to destabilize and result in fissures and sinkholes the town of Centralia eventually decided to close shop. For the most part, Centralia exists today as a site that encompasses a number of types of disasters: industrial, environmental, economic, and individual. That last one comes into play because, like the story of Treece I posted last week, not everyone has abandoned Centralia. Despite the site now being owned by the state and most of the town’s buildings and homes being bulldozed, a few folks still insist on calling Centralia home.

I’ve seen two decent stories about Centralia in the last couple days. The first is an AP story collected at Huffington Post focuses a bit more on the former towns residents today and includes some pictures. The second, a story from Smithsonian.com by Kevin Krajick focuses on the story of the coal fire on a larger scale. The scope of this coal fire is impressive to say the least, but the fact that stood out to me is the sheer number of these sorts of fires that are raging throughout the world at this moment.

As I said in my link to the story about Treece, I suspect I’ll be coming back to write about these stories in the future.

Conspiracy Charges for Superintendent of Upper Big Branch

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against Gary May, the former superintendent of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. More details at NPR.

More Responses to CNN’s Battle for Blair Mountain

I’m a bit late on this post, but I do have another chapter of the dissertation drafted. As excuses go, that one isn’t too shabby. I wanted to continue for a little longer on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain” special. Specifically I found two compelling responses online that I wanted to share.

First, Matt Wasson at the Front Porch Blog from Appalachian Voices provides a succinct look at the facts that CNN missed in its special. Wasson’s figures hit on the the issue I was struggling with in my response about the argument CNN puts forward about environmentalism versus jobs in the special. Wasson also hits on a very important issue regarding Bill Raney’s correlation/causation claim:

While Raney is technically correct that these studies are based on “correlation and not causation,” it’s a meaningless distinction for nearly every public health study ever conducted. There is no way to ever prove causation in public health studies, which is why researchers have to use statistics to tease apart trends and find evidence for – but never prove – causation. The peer-review process in science is what protects against misuse and abuse of statistics.

What Wasson points to here was something that troubled me while watching the special, but which I don’t think I did as good a job as I could have articulating why. The quote here articulates what I was trying to get at a bit better.

Wasson’s entire post is well worth a read through for these interested in the special or more importantly the important numbers the special misses.

Second, Joe Atkins provides a compelling take on the special. What I’m particularly drawn to in Atkins’ discussion is his focus on the framing of the special. Atkins here articulates something that I was troubled by in the special’s focus on the Dials. I continue to stand by my original claim that the Dials are in the right for the wrong reasons, but Atkins teases out the problems associated with the reasoning the Dials put forward. Atkins’ call for more passionate reporting rather than “balance” is intriguing and, again, the whole post is well worth a read.

Briefly, some notes for my own work: Atkins also provides two facts that had been nagging me, but that I had not found the opportunity to double check. Arch Coal was the company focused on in “Battle for Blair Mountain” but Massey Energy was also interested in mtr at Blair. This was something that I had vaguely recalled being the case.

I was also pleased to see Atkins point to Diane Sawyer’s “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” as an example of another special that fails to focus on industrial influence in the region’s poverty. This plays into my own analysis of “A Hidden America” in my dissertation work.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I came across both of these sources via Ken Ward Jr. at Coal Tatoo.

Thoughts on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain”

First and foremost I walked away from this special disappointed. In the end it became yet another human-interest oriented special on Appalachia. To be fair, I think it’s one of the best human-interest specials I’ve seen on the area. Soledad O’brien deserves credit for refusing to patronize the people that she interviewed and more importantly for the way that the special portrayed those people. It also did an intriguing job choosing most of its subjects. Specifically (apologies if I get names wrong, I have no way of rewatching the show to double check my notes at the moment) I thought Linda and James were good subjects to highlight. I found them both intriguing: Linda for her adamant belief that she’s in the right (I’ll say I agree with significant caveats but more on that in a moment) and James for his work in reclamation on Mountain Top Removal (mtr from hereon). What disappointed me was the lack of significant focus on James’ work. Reclemation practices appeared to me to be woefully inadequate (something James inadvertently admitted to when he said it was put back the best men could), but I realize that’s a subjective reaction. Afterall, someone (I missed the name) claimed God wanted mtr. I’m certainly not going to argue that this person sees the same thing I see when I look at mtr reclamation.

I doubt anyone who knows me will be surprised, but I found the focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was woefully inadequate. It failed entirely to capture the importance of that event, the driving forces behind it and the reason why people are marching to save Blair. In fact the portrayal of the marchers was, frankly, poorly done. There were stronger and perhaps more pertinent voices to interview in that march in the video I posted here earlier this today (admittedly it’s a biased source, but that doesn’t mean those people weren’t participants in the march). The people on the march that were interviewed (specifically the younger people/students?) simply did not provide the breadth of support for that march. Ultimately the lack of this breadth and the lack of significant focus on the battle in 1921 completely failed to convey the importance of this particular mountain. The closest the special got to this was Keeney’s comparison to Gettysburg (which was excellent). Yes, mtr and the struggle against it goes much further than Blair, but the title of the show was “Battle for Blair Mountain.” It calls for a bit more specificity.

I also saw a lot of rumblings on Twitter about the lack of “sick” individuals from the community arguing against mtr. People suffering from poor water quality and illness related to mtr are a major feature of this movement and shouldn’t be ignored. I’m willing to give CNN the benefit of doubt here though. Blair hasn’t been subject to mtr and therefore no one in that particular community have had to face that issue. There is a strong focus on the scientific findings on mtr were pretty prominent. This is to the special’s credit. Yet I think the focus on correlation and causality later in the episode is dangerous. Maybe we don’t have causality, but that correlation between mtr and health issues is horrifying and once you destroy a watershed there is simply no going back. The science is pointing us towards very disturbing findings and we ignore them at our own peril.

That said, I still think Linda is right, but for the wrong reasons. She and James deserve job security. I don’t want there to be any misconception about the need for wide ranging economic reform in the area. This is why I approach mtr through an environmental justice approach. The economic windfall from the stopping of mtr absolutely has to be addressed. My stance remains that coal produced electricity (much like oil) are environmentally destructive. If we’re going to have a fix it has to be environmentally and economically sound.

Further, there were significant (though normal) oversights by mtr supporters. James for instance decries his need to drive an hour for a job at the end of the episode. This is all well and good, but how far would he have to drive for a job after the mountain is gone and reclamation work is over? If anything mtr at Blair is a momentary fix. Mining is inherently a boom and bust economic model depending on the seam, the market, and regulation. The EPA’s decision about Spruce 1 creates problems for people today, but in a lot of cases these problems would simply show up in the years to come if mtr went forward. These communities are not secure or they are only secure momentarily if the coal companies have free reign in mtr.

And here we come to my biggest issue with “Battle for Blair Mountain”: The human interest nature of the show means that it practically ignores the incredibly powerful third party in this struggle: the coal company. (Note: I did not get an accurate spelling/did not hear the name accurately while watching for the company involved in the Blair Mtn mtr license. I haven’t found that information right away since sitting down to write this. In the interest of getting my thoughts down quickly I’ll track that information down in the near future.) The special presents a false dichotomy. We have “coal miners” on one side and “environmentalists” on the other. I use scare quotes specifically here because of the lack of accurate in that characterization. Coal miners don’t all support mtr. This is one of the reasons the focus on James is so intriguing. He (ostensibly) wouldn’t have a job in an underground mine. The show does a good job pointing out that mtr employs less people than underground mining. But that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. The entity determining the jobs is the coal company (or overall the industry). The history of the coal industry in the community is long and complicated at best. To say that they have the community’s interests at heart though is ridiculous. They want mtr because it’s cheap and that cheapness is in part because they don’t have to employ as many people. The people who run these companies do not live near these mountains. The special fails to really look into these “community members” (if I can go so far as to use the claim that corporations are people). They are not benevolent dictators and they can and will move their money elsewhere. They play a huge role in lobbying the state and national government as well. Their power, motives, and the role they play in the governing of these issues demand more attention. Yes, they refused to comment to CNN. That’s well and good. Their omission does not mean that CNN does not have a journalistic responsibility to look into this aspect of the story.

To its credit “Battle for Blair Mountain” does not present simple good guys and bad guys. It does not presume to talk down or remove agency from the individuals who live in this community. For all of these (crucial) strengths, it fails to examine the elephant in the room. While I don’t expect CNN to provide the answer for this issue, I suspect they could go a long way to enlightening the issue if they had turned their focus towards the coal companies.

CNN’s Blair Mountain Special

CNN is airing a special tonight called “The Battle for Blair Mountain.” It’s on the recent protest march trying to save Blair Mtn from mountain top removal mining. I’ve written fairly extensively about Blair Mountain in my dissertation work as well here on the blog. Sadly I was travelling during the protest march in June so I wasn’t able to give it the sort of coverage it deserved. Quite simply, Blair Mountain is one of the most important and under-appreciated historic sites in the United States. The battle in 1921 was a pivotal and stunning episode in labor history in this nation. Worse yet the destruction facing it from MTR means not simply that the site will be damaged, but that it will literally cease to exist. To have a site where over 10,000 miners stood up against the destructive practices of coal mining destroyed by the coal industry’s most destructive practices today would be to disgrace to their memory and sacrifice.

The special will be aired at 8pm eastern and pacific (as near as I can tell). I’m not sure what to expect from the special, but I’m hoping it will serve as a good introduction to The Battle of Blair Mountain for viewers and bring some much needed attention to the struggle to save it from MTR. I’m planning on liveblogging the special or writing about it directly afterwards.

Here’s a video from ilovemountains.org about the march in June:

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.

Wind in our brains

Indictment in Upper Big Branch Disaster Investigation

Hughie Elbert Stover has been arrested and charged for obstructing the investigation of the 2010 disaster at Upper Big Branch.

The whole story: AP News report via Huffington Post.

MSHA Splits District Including Upper Big Branch

NPR reports on the upcoming split of the Mine Safety and Health Administration district that includes the Upper Big Branch Mine that was the site of an explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. The split will come as a means to help safety enforcement by decreasing the relative size being administered. The split will happen later this year, but NPR raises some important questions about the delay of this action until 2011.