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West Virginia’s Coal Mines

Billy Pettry, Caden Gray, 5, and Brandon Gray, from left, sit on the steps of the Marsh Fork Worship Center in Eunice, W.Va., near the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine. (AP)

They go down in the mines every day for the coal that lights and heats a huge chunk of the country.

This week, at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, too many miners – far too many miners – did not come out.

A blast rocked the mine when shifts were changing. The grief that followed has caught the entire nation.

Today, we talk with miners. Coal miners in West Virginia.

We talk about the work they do every day. About mines and mine shafts – the life, the danger. About the mine that turned lethal this week.

This Hour, On Point: miners on mining, and the disaster at Upper Big Branch.


Beth Vorhees, producer, host, and senior correspondent for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

J. Davitt McAteer, former head of the Mine Health and Safety Administration under President Clinton and Vice President for Sponsored Programs at Wheeling-Jesuit University.

Jeffrey Harris, 54-year-old, sixth-generation miner. He works in the Harris No. 1 mine in Farley, West Virginia. He’s worked in a mine for 30 years.

Adam Vance, 27-year-old, third-generation miner. He runs a shuttle car at Pinnacle Mine in Pineville, West Virginia, on the graveyard shift.

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  • Anne Gibson

    Almost every one of us who flips on an electric appliance lives off the backs of these miners, whether in West Virginia or other parts of the country.

    First question: my understanding is that Big Branch Mine and the Sago mine were not unionized. Could you comment please?

    Second question: I have been told by a West Virginia friend that some coal companies actually build the cost of fines and lost personnel into their budgets, and as a result don’t take fines for violated regulations very seriously. Again, can you comment? Thank you.

  • cory


    Shutting out unions and cutting corners on safety? That’s just good business. I’m sure these things are true of many, many American businesses.

  • Gary

    I saw a completely robotic mine (copper as I recall) somewhere in South America (Argentina?). I suppose the cost of total miner safety would come with a price in technology and jobs though…

  • BHA

    Along with Anne’s questions, I would like to know how the local mine managers as well as corporate execs are compensated.

    I bet it is based on tons of coal shipped and the cost the get it from the mine to the road. I’d like to see a penalty: Decrease for every violation. More decreases for every accident that can be attributed to lack of adherence to safety standards. Give them bonuses based on having NO violations and NO accidents. Even 1 violation or accident should mean NO bonus of any sort.

    The LARGE company I work for allows for ZERO OSHA violations. Not one is acceptable, ever. Seems some of the coal companies just pay the fines (the ones they don’t fight) and move on as if nothing had happened and nothing needs to be done. After all, coal mining is a dangerous profession. To my mind ALL the more reason to do EVERYTHING you can to make it as safe as possible.

  • RW

    This mining disaster is another reason why America needs to build more nuclear power plants.

  • Chris Robbins

    Here’s a good summary of what Massey has been up to in recent years. http://gecon.blogspot.com/2010/04/massey-coal.html.

    Companies like this have such a strong hold over politics that it’s hard to control them in any way. Massey Coal was sued by a smaller coal company, which claimed they were driven out of business through contract interference. Massey chairman Don Blankenship funded the campaign to unseat a judge on the case, essentially “buying” the court so that he could win the suit. The Supreme Court later ruled that this judge should have recused himself. Blankenship also chaired the US Chamber of Commerce, which will be spending billions in the next electons. He contributes large amounts to Republican candidates and the Tea Party. Can grassroots citizens defeat this juggernaut? Massey is suing peaceful mountaintop removal protestors, claiming they are costing the company money.

  • Bill Pulliam

    Mine accidents make for dramatic television, but mining is not statistically much more dangerous that other industries, such as transportation, logging, and fishing. 2007 statistics show an average of 15 workplace fatalities in the U.S. every day; these spectacular mine disasters are more a media magnet than anything else. In terms of total fatalities, 21% happen in construction, and 16% happen in transportation. In contrast, 3% happened in mining. When was the last time you devoted a special issue to the rampant deaths of truck drivers or construction workers?

  • Kate Hladky

    If this doesn’t make the case for solar and wind, I don’t know what does.
    The 3(6) most useless words in the English language:
    should have
    could have
    would have
    My heart goes out to all miners and their families.
    Namaste, Kate Hladky

  • Andrew

    In todays Press Republican newspaper, (Plattsburgh, NY) headline reads “Franklin Wind Plans Off” It seems that the price of wholesale electricity is too inexpensive to continue phase II of the Noble Wind Farm project. Or maybe Coal and hard working laborors lifes is cheaper?

  • Mark

    Blankenship should be tried and charged with the death of these 25 men. He and his ego are solely responsible for ignoring regulations and foregoing safety precautions for the purpose of seeking higher, faster profits.

    This guy is scum and will sure rot eternally in the deepest, darkest, hottest corner of hell.

  • Scott

    How is it that Don Blankenship not in jail?

  • Stuart Gardner

    Has any executive ever gone to jail for failure to comply with regulations ?

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’d like to mention a book, published in 1941, author Richard Llewelyn: How Green Was My Valley — about coal mining in Wales. I read it when I was little, and it shapes my idea of family, community, multi-generation commitment to in this case mining. The stickiness of a way of life, part of why we stick to coal; it’s almost a religion to the communities involved. It wasn’t a job you “retired” from; you died from it.

  • Mary Ann

    Is it time to discuss abolishing mining as inhumane for miners? It doesn’t just ruin the earth and extract materials that cause even more environmental damage, it relies on an uneducated workforce from regions with few employment options. Mine owners will argue their employees choose to work there. Except for that narrow “choice,” however, there is little difference between mining today and the industrial slavery practiced by US Steel and others for the first half of the last century. (Thanks, Tom, for persuading me to read “Slavery by Another Name.”)

  • Murl Aldridge

    I say this to everyone not just miners. Your responsibility to your family is to come home safe. I live on the assumption that what the people that love me need is my attentive presence. I have not always, but I will for the rest of my life.

  • Mark

    Dems should shine a light on this to grow consensus on Card Check. It’s very clear that had this mine been unionized, the likelihood that these 25 men would still be alive would be much greater.

  • Aaron

    “Blankenship should be tried and charged with the death of these 25 men.”

    Not likely. As Ambrose Bierce wrote over 100 years ago:
    “Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.”

  • Lynne Rosa

    What about criminal penalties. Depraved indifference, anyone?? Thank you.

  • Terry

    Hello Tom and Guests,

    My question is for Don Blankenship, the owners, the supervisors that fake safety, and the lawyers that protect them, What would you give to keep from being sealed in this mine with the bodies of those that didn’t survive, with the worst safety equipment you provide, until all of the equipment can be broken down, returned to its base, and then your rescue can only be done by the family members of those that have dies by your cost-cutting and other crimes, as you deserve?

  • Nancy Cassidy

    The owner of the Massey Mine doesn’t fix problems or install proper ventilation because it’s cheaper to pay the fines. Well, it’s cheaper for me not to have auto liability insurance, but if I hit and injure – or kill – someone with my car, I’m charged with not having insurance which is required by law.

    Also, if I have something dangerous on my property, and a visitor or worker is hurt of killed as a result of my negligence, I am held responsible.

    The owner of Massey should be held liable for gross negligence and for manslaughter. After all, he could have prevented this disaster.

    Anyone see “There Will Be Blood”? This lack of human decency reminds me of the main character in that movie.

  • BHA

    How much of the cost of installing reasonable safety equipment could have been covered if Massey had spent the money on that rather than on lawyers to circumvent the rules and ‘bollix up’ the courts fighting violations??

  • Margaret McCasland

    I live in an all-electric apartment. My electricity comes from Massey coal. I am constantly finding more ways to conserve. Blankenship et al should be tried for criminal negligence. Having worked with coal miners and their families, and with the UMW (while democratizing), I know mining can be done so much more safely. My father invented a device to detect lethal doses of methane (in the early 1960s)–there was NO interest from coal companies. The device has since been reinvented in a smaller and cheaper form, and I believe its use is now mandated, but the non-union companies (big and small) STILL won’t pay for them/allow them to be used properly.

  • Maryann Merigan

    What if the corporate offices were located in the heart of the mine and all executives had to spend more than 90% of their day in the mine?

  • Marina

    Isn’t WV a RED state?

  • Harry, Madison, WI

    America burns lots of coal, most for electricity, but Americans have ignored the costs to the environment and human health for too long: climate change, ocean acidification, devastation to the land, respiratory illness from power plant emissions, and yes, the deaths and long-term health effects to coal miners.
    Conserving electricity is the cheapest, fastest and least painful way to cut our reliance on this very dirty fuel. Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org) has released numerous studies showing how, but utilities make money selling electricity. Meanwhile, the cost of green energy is coming down – we need to make the investment in transitioning to a green energy economy. We know how to fix this problem, let’s do it!

  • Brett

    Ellen Dibble,
    I thought of “How Green Was My Valley” in listening to this segment. Of course, I also thought if anyone would mention this reference t’would be you. ;-)

    Everything we need to learn about free enterprise, the need for unions, regulatory oversight, regional economic blackmail, energy dependence, lack of business diversity, the power (and its limitations) of free will–and its complexity, and greed can be found in this tragedy, which makes it a kind of microcosm of all industry problems. The coal company had all of the technology, knowledge and resources to prevent this tragedy from occurring, but they chose to use their resources to cheat and manipulate the system for profit maximization.

    One of the commenters pointed to some data to suggest that coal mining is no more dangerous than the trucking industry or logging, etc., and I don’t doubt his provided numbers. All of those industries are dangerous, which is even more reason to hold them to a higher standard. When Reagan deregulated the trucking industry and the airline industry, the numbers of accidents increased.

    If private business is left to its own devices without checks and balances from unions and regulatory oversight, without strict adherence to workers’ rights and safety being balanced against profits, these kinds of periodic tragedies will continue.

    I remember working in an architectural concrete manufacturing plant when I was in high school. It was a non-union (Va. is a “right-to-work” state) operation where any talk of workers’ rights, safety regulation adherence, etc., was considered a fireable offense. OSHA would come around regularly to inspect. We always knew when they were coming (usually a day in advance); and, in anticipation of their arrival, we would quickly turn on the huge exhaust fans and ventilation systems (usually kept off because they were costly to run) to remove cement dust from the air (which is toxic); we’d put all of the saw guards back on the saws (a safety feature to prevent wood “kick-back”); we’d dilute the lacquer used to coat the wood molds (back to the proper, safe dilutions) and turn on the exhaust systems in the painting rooms; everybody would be prompted to put on ear plugs and safety glasses…on and on. Safety was a joke, and anyone who advocated for better safety was considered to prompt management to look unfavorably at their department, which in turn caused workers to turn against each other.

    I am reminded that not much has really changed since the early 1970′s. Does anyone really believe that leaving private corporations to their own devices, that competition in business in and of itself will take care of these problems?

  • Todd

    Sixteen tons and what do ya get…

  • Joyce Hathaway

    The disaster at Big Branch mine is just the most recent example of the exploitation of WV by big corporations beginning with clear cutting the forests, stripping oil and gas resources,and finally mountain top mining. It’s all very well for Joe Mansion to express sympathy for the miners and their families. He himself is a creature of the coal industry. Conditions will never improve as long as politics and Big Coal (with big money) are inextricably bound together. At every level, politicians are in thrall to Massey-like companies. Thoreau said it” Oh, for a man in the state…with a backbone you couldn’t pass your hand through.”

  • Charlotte

    1. What legal remedies are available to the survivors of the dead and the injured?

    2. What does Massey spend on political contributions and to whom do they pay it?

    3. If coal wages are such good wages despite the risks, what are mining families frittering it away on rather than building up a strike fund to enable them to stand up to the unjust and downright criminal practices of management?

  • http://FlusterCucked.blogspot.com Frank the Underemployed Professional

    These poor souls died for our coal. Is it time for us to seriously consider nuclear energy? It seems much safer and certainly pollutes much less.

  • Charles Rogers

    Im a former union fireboss,If I did something wrong and someone got hurt or died Id be held responsible or possible jail time,same goes for formans and management. Why isnt Don held liable or put in prision where he belonged long ago,Hes the one that tells the forman or management what not to do.I feel the pain of the families because Ive lost relatives in mine accidents also.I hope these families stick together and put pressure on the politicans to have DON put in his rightful place.Hes just a scumb bag that has no feelings for employes or human life

  • Sarah Ferguson

    A huge thank you to Jeffrey Harris and Adam Vance for literally risking their lives to speak out against Massey Coal. My heart goes out to them & their families, just as it does to the families of the miners lost in the explosion. Take Me Home, Country Roads…

  • Kevin

    Sympathy to all who lost loved ones.
    I hate to throw cold water on your union lovefest, but unions are not the end all answer to this problem. Your guests implied that unions could fix every problem just by being in control. This couldn’t be father from the truth! People tend to lose their voice in unions. The unions also have to get their hands into your paycheck. I don’t want to defend Mr. Blankenship, but I’m sure these companies realize that without their workers they make NO money.

  • Kevin

    Sympathy to all who lost loved ones.
    I hate to throw cold water on your union lovefest, but unions are not the end all answer to this problem. Your guests implied that unions could fix every problem just by being in control. This couldn’t be further from the truth! People tend to lose their voice in unions. The unions also have to get their hands into your paycheck. I don’t want to defend Mr. Blankenship, but I’m sure these companies realize that without their workers they make NO money.

  • http://ncpr stillin

    While listening to how many people died in this, all I could think of was the outrage over Toyota, and they did not have the deaths this mining disaster had. We grilled the automaker so bad, yes they knew for four months? Look at mining.

  • jim schaefer

    When a bank fails, or is near to failure, the FDIC sweeps in, takes over the bank, surveys everything and then tries to get the bank open within a few days.

    I would like to see a “Federal Mine Safety Team” that could sweep in cases of disaster, like this Massey disaster, take over the operation, check the “books” for safety violations, and do whatever it takes to make the mine safe, and then send the bill to the company. The coal company should then be under direct supervision for a year until safety practices become ingrained in management and workers feel safe going into the mines and don’t feel threatened if they report a safety violation.

  • Donald

    Good Luck.

  • sgs

    If these regulators, who keep postponing these rescue efforts due to unsafe conditions had shown the same concern for the everyday workers of these mines, this tragedy would never have happened. This operation should have been shut down after the first offense!

  • MK27

    You should discuss the recent comments of DON BLANKENSHIP, who referred to members of the local paper as “admitted athiests” and the critics of his safety policy as “socialists — and socialists and atheists are my enemy, *you do not accept the criticism of your enemies*” and some stuff about GOD.

    I understand y’all in WV are allowed your own kooky culture and to kill each other and all within it, but it reminds me of polygamy and the status of some teenage girls in Utah — basically the government is failing to enforce the law out of respect for? what — I bet DON BLANKENSHIP wishes it was 1910. The man should be in a psych ward, not running a gigantic Energy Corporation.


    MURDERED 25 FAMILIES !!! Posted by Abigail

  • Anne Tkach

    I just wanted to say thank you to the guests on the show, and all those who go down in the earth to make our way of life work. My grandpa was also a coal miner, and from the knowledge of his experience I have the deepest respect for the men who risk their lives daily. I hope that our way of life can shift to include respect of the safety that they deserve!

  • Mark Rothstein

    Since the owners have a strong interest in deferring citations and fighting them in the courts so they don’t become final, do you think this will work–
    Whenever any serious mine accident occurs (serious includes any death plus other situations TBD), all open violations are considered final and triple (or some other useful number) fines apply immediately with no right of dispute.
    Thank you to the miners on the show.

  • Art Edwards

    Listening to this evening’s program makes me realize that America’s miners should be heralded as heroes. I can’t agree more with the earlier commenter who said that all of us who use electrical appliances owe these men a debt of thanks.

    Please convey my respect and gratitude to Messrs Harris and Vance, and to their colleagues.

    Thank you for a very informative and enlightening show.

  • KurtGP

    As Americans we all need to step up, and take action to change the laws. Board members, owners, and management should not be shielded by the laws of “Corporation”. If they so blatantly disregard safety issues and human life over profits to where people die, then they should be charged and convicted of 1st degree manslaughter. This is America, this is a real cause, we all need to rally behind this cause, and make the changes happen.

    As for this tragedy, I’m truly dumbfounded by it… I have random thoughts such as… The current corporation needs to be completely dismantled. All profits should be sized, and handed over to, and divided among the suffering families. (which sadly is not enough) Board members, owner, and management should be prosecuted to the fullest extent to the law. (which I’m afraid is not enough) The current mining operation should be award to a mining company with the highest safety record, so the remaining workers don’t lose their job, and would now have a safe and prosperous work environment.

    As the most powerful nation on the planet, built on the will of “We The People” we should be able to make this happen.

    So what is the next step???

  • Elizabeth

    Many thanks for this episode of On Point. It was very moving and eye-opening to hear from miners who actually mine coal. The drastic safety differences between union and non-union mines are outrageous.

    These mine owners should not have the option to skirt essential ventilation and coal dust removal practices to mine more coal faster. Congress should act quickly to legislate increased regulation and to put in place continuous oversight. Workers should have access to quick, anonymous methods for unionizing.

    We all use the electricity from this coal every time we flip a light switch. We all need to pressure Congress to legislate safe working conditions for miners.

  • Paul J. Stamler

    I’ve heard quite a few programs on “On Point” over the years; this was by far the best. Listening to the two men tell firsthand what working in the mines is like brought it home to me in a way no other coverage has — and brought home, too, the irresponsibility of the mine owners. “They talk a good talk when they’re above ground, but down below is a different story.” The miners spoke with a deep eloquence. Pray that their comrades still missing may be found alive.

    This program was one for the ages.

  • Janet

    The problem is another government agency(s) failed to do their job. Once again they show up after the fact with some lame excuse “We told them…” The government workers are never held accountable.

  • http://wbur.org wms student(:

    what ppl dont understand coal minning is west virginia and if you take that away then you will be destroying ppl’s live,family’s, and homes. if coal minning goes away then ppl will lose there jobs and then the will move out from wv to find a job. there for our population will go down and that will knock in to a lower tax bracket

  • Rick Gioia

    For those of us who are at the consuming end of the energy chain, I believe there is an effective tactic we can all initiate. Each of us can call our local utility company and DEMAND that the coal they buy to run the generators which supply us our electricity come ONLY from union-operated mines. Lapses in safety procedures seems to be the root cause of this terrible disaster. This is the fundamental purpose that labor unions were designed to address: guaranteeing equitable wages and benefits for workers, and instituting standards for a safe workplace.

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