There’s still no such thing as a natural disaster

Posted in anthropology, law, mine safety, politics, union on April 5th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Not in the mines, anyway.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, in which 29 miners died. As I wrote then, the investigation is ongoing – there is no consensus on what caused the explosion, nor on what should be done to prevent another. The chairman of Massey Energy, the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch facility, called the explosion a “natural disaster”.

Whether such a thing exists at all is up for debate (on this, I highly recommend Neil Smith’s article pertaining to the “naturalness” of the effects of Hurricane Katrina). But in the coal mines of West Virginia, where production is still valued over miners’ lives, this disaster is the furthest thing from natural. Describing it as such is just Massey’s most recent attempt to absolve itself of accountability for miners’ deaths.

Exactly a year after the explosion, my article critiquing mining disasters, safety laws, and corporate responsibility has been published in the April 2011 issue of North American Dialogue, the journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America. For those who wish to read a condensed version, here is the short article I attempted to publish in online news journals (you may recall my failure on this account) which comes from the same research.

I won’t invoke the “never again” that has become a clich√© in times like these, because, unfortunately, this will happen again. It will happen as long as we consume coal. More important, I think, is that these men never be forgotten and their deaths never, ever be erased by being called “natural.”


Martinsburg, WV (my hometown), photo by author

Mine! mine! mine!  How corporate self-interest trumped civic responsibility in Montcoal

by Emily S. Channell

Millions of gallons of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico since April 22 quickly swept aside news of the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5 mine explosion at Montcoal, West Virginia. Outside of the state, reporting on the details of the explosion and its causes has been minimal. A May 17 Newsweek article on the Deepwater Horizon spill even misreported the number of dead miners at Upper Big Branch to have been 25. The bad behavior of BP executives has trumped that of the top dogs at Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch, even as a criminal inquiry into the explosion unfolds.

Industry executives present coal to energy consumers as a cheap, clean, domestic power source. This ignores the danger coal mining creates for miners and the destruction it causes to the natural environment. The demand for coal in the United States is enormous. According to the National Mining Association, half of U.S. electricity is coal-generated, and 90 percent of coal mined in the U.S. is used domestically. Mine owners stand to benefit from increasing production as the U.S. becomes more dependent on coal, and safety laws remain a barrier to their operations.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years. How can a coal mine, particularly one owned by the largest, richest coal mining company in West Virginia, allow such a disaster to happen? Both corporate leaders and government agencies benefit from a culture of impunity in mining regulations. The people who control the coal industry, like Massey CEO Don Blankenship, are above the law and are not held accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the law itself is not working. Miners have little power against such huge corporations, and the miners’ union is largely absent from underground mines in West Virginia because of company-led anti-union practices. Neither the government agency responsible for the laws (Mine Safety and Health Administration) nor the miners themselves can hold owners and operators accountable for their practices. This impunity is directly responsible for mining disasters and disregard for miners’ lives throughout Appalachia.

The Legacy of Archaic Regulations

The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969 and its 1977 amendments remain the standard for safety regulations in coal mines today. These laws require annual inspections for both underground and surface mines to monitor ventilation, methane levels, and coal dust prevalence, three factors that likely contributed to the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Coal production has tripled since 1970, but these standards have not been revised to reflect increased coal production. Additional laws created in 2006 in response to the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia institute emergency planning and preparation standards in underground mines but do not change any regulations for coal mines. As coal corporations have consolidated into near-monopolies in Appalachia, owners and operators find numerous ways to get around safety laws both old and new.

Mine disasters still happen largely because federal mine safety regulations are insufficient and unenforced. The Upper Big Branch mine has received 124 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for safety violations so far in 2010, on top of 515 citations in 2009. Most of these citations remain unresolved. Massey Energy contests 74 percent of the violations its mines receive from MSHA. The appeal process takes around 500 days to settle. During this process, the owners pay no fines and are not required to deal with the problem the citation targeted. Massey Energy amassed almost $1.2 billion by March 31 of this year, and the company was only charged $1.1 million in fines since January 2009. Because Massey can easily afford to pay the fines, its owners are not pressured to make their mines safer for workers.

The State of the Union

In West Virginia, where most people’s income is 24 percent below the national average, coal mining is still the most lucrative industry. Even for people with college degrees, coal mining offers the greatest income and benefits among available jobs in the southern part of the state, while most service-sector jobs are concentrated in urban hubs or in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles. Corporations such as Massey take advantage of this situation to keep their mines anti-union because they know people need the work and the money mining jobs provide. Miners who show interest in unionizing are frequently threatened or lose their jobs, as several miners testified at Congressional hearings in May of this year. Miners fear reporting obvious safety violations and taking measures to fix them for the same reasons.

Upper Big Branch was a union mine until 1993, when Don Blankenship bought it for Massey Energy. Blankenship disbanded the union until 1997, when the option to unionize was put to a vote. Massey ran a successful anti-union campaign, wherein the company threatened to fire miners who supported the union. The miners voted against union affiliation. In this climate, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) faces dwindling numbers of underground miners in West Virginia and across the country. In most of Massey’s 23 coal mining operations, where only four percent of miners are unionized, the UMWA has lost much of its power to protect laborers and to demand better practices from mining companies.

Will Further Inquiry Yield Change?

It would be far too hopeful to suggest that Massey risks going out of business based on a few criminal trials, but the company’s safety record is currently under serious scrutiny by West Virginia lawmakers as well as the federal government. The FBI has demanded a criminal inquiry into the explosion at Upper Big Branch. This investigation will examine the existence of negligence or reckless disregard on the part of Massey, potentially targeting the corporation and Don Blankenship directly.

As the inquiry plays out, the potential for new mine safety legislation and a real questioning of corporate impunity in West Virginia presents itself. The current administration should consider rewriting the 1977 mine safety laws to target insufficient legislation and loopholes that make enforcement nearly impossible. The laws should not let corporations and their leaders get away with unsafe practices that put miners’ lives in danger daily.

Lest We Forget

How quickly we forget, however, the relevance of the coal mining disaster to our daily lives. It is easy to rely on coal. It is easy to demand that West Virginia continue to produce coal because Appalachian coal is understood to be domestic, cheaply mined, and an efficient energy source. It is easy to forget that many in West Virginia may have no other option than to work in the mines and to encourage their family members to work in the mines.

It is easy to forget that miners in the 1920s gave their lives to win their right to form a union and that miners today give their lives because they do not have the right to challenge the safety practices of a gigantic corporation that is their best source of livelihood.

It is easy to ignore the structures of corporate power that make men such as Don Blankenship immune to justice. It is easy to see the human and environmental destruction done by Massey and BP alike as accidents rather than predictable results of the power of corporate capitalists to neglect people’s interests and escape governmental oversight. When we fail to challenge the structures that lead to these disasters, when we erase these memories, we contribute to the culture of impunity that caused 29 men to die at Montcoal in an entirely preventable disaster.


Impunity, part 2

Posted in history, law, mine safety, union on July 8th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

In my attempt to beat the summer heat in Brooklyn, I’m focusing a lot on trying to publish some stuff (as well as on doing some data analysis on kinship networks in Labrador, Canada, but that’s another story). I have to admit, it is a long and trying process. After a fellow CUNY blogger mentioned that it’s nice to read about a work in progress but that he might never get to read the final work, I decided to write a less academic and hopefully more interesting article based on the research I completed this semester about mine safety laws. While the academic version has given me some promising leads on publication, I’ve sent the “public” version to several left-leaning online and print journals, and…nothing.

The process of writing a non-academic article when you’ve spent a year (or five, if you count undergrad) being completely indoctrinated into writing with as much jargon and theory as possible is far more difficult than producing a peer review-worthy paper. This might sound ridiculous coming from a first year graduate student, but actually writing in a style that would make people want to read my article, make them care about what I am saying, and make them do something about it rather than just giving them something else to think about was trying and frustrating as much as it was rewarding and fulfilling. The lack of response, however, has really got me down. Part of my reason for getting into anthropology and insisting on going straight to graduate school was my interest in public anthropology and my feeling that the discipline is turning toward a more accessible version of itself – and that this is something I want to be a part of. So now I have a new task at hand: writing about things I care about is one thing, but getting them out there is apparently something else altogether.

I have been speculating about the lack of response, and while I recognize that it may very well be based on my writing, I wonder if it may have something to do with the topic I’m presenting. One of the journals I sent the article to, In These Times, is a great publication that takes a lot of interest in workers’ issues, and it surprises me that they posted what appears to be only one article targeting Don Blankenship (granted, he is the easiest target…) and his personal violation of mine safety laws. Okay, but there’s a much longer, detailed dialogue that needs to be happening here, and while Massey and Blankenship are the largest and most visible culprits in this situation, we’re talking about the systematic erosion of mining laws, which means that really, any mining company can get away with this stuff, even the small ones. Never will I argue for the innocence of Blankenship. But only focusing on his actions and his salary, sick as they are, ignores the more significant implications of corporate capitalist expansion as a whole, and it ignores much of the historical detail I have gone to great pains to understand. Removing Don Blankenship and Massey Energy doesn’t change the fact that coal extraction exploits West Virginian miners. Impunity extends beyond that man to government agencies and the union alike: maybe that’s where I get myself into trouble (I guess some people don’t really like it when you say that the union isn’t going to solve the world’s problems…).

Another part of me wonders if this issue is just too hard for folks to deal with. Do we not want to be told about how reliant on coal because it’s easier not to know, so then we don’t feel as guilty for our consumption’s role in this disaster? Holding someone accountable means energy consumers, too, whether we like it or not. Is that too harsh of a reality for the average lefty news reader? We are outraged about oil spills (which are devastating, I know, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be outraged), but admitting that excessive mining due to our own huge energy demands causes people’s deaths is something that is too hard to care about, or too hard to do something about. Is coal consumption too deeply ingrained in our being to consider changing our ways? If that’s the case, then we’re all just Don Blankenships, who once suggested that coal is what made America great and is necessary for its continued greatness, and that’s why we should keep on mining it like we do.

I know to some extent I’m overthinking this whole thing. Publishing is taxing, and convincing people to be interested in what you care most about is the hardest thing about caring about something. This remains a huge issue in West Virginia news, and it’s a pity that it has disappeared from what appears to be all other news sources. If I don’t get any responses from the next week or so, I’ll post the full article here for some more extensive feedback and discussion.

And by the way, thanks to all my really amazing friends who read the article and gave me feedback on it, particularly my anthropology life partner Kara. Her work is admirable and inspirational and her criticisms are the most honest as well as the most useful.

In other news

I’d like to take a second to pay homage to the late, great Robert C. Byrd, who died on June 28th. His life was complex and fascinating, and while he was largely supportive of coal corporations in West Virginia, I think his attitude toward this most recent tragedy left him with some highly honorable final words. Furthermore, he was able to do more for the state than perhaps any other person in history, and for that we as West Virginians are deeply indebted to him. Read about his life at the Charleston Gazette.

This means that West Virginia has an open Senate seat for the first time in 25 years (Jay Rockefeller took office in 1985). Governor Manchin has mentioned holding a special election – in which he might run – for the seat within the year. The timing of Byrd’s death and the opening of the seat with statewide questioning of coal mining practices provides an interesting, though perhaps unlikely, possibility for a new perspective in the governance of the state.

Impunity, part 1

Posted in mine safety, union on May 19th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

An Act

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled. That this Act may be cited as the “Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977”.


SEC. 2. Congress declares that–

(a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner;

I’d like to keep updated reports on my progress as I write this paper on safety regulations. Each time I sit down to work, I find something new that contributes to my ire as well as to my paper’s framework, and I think it would be helpful for me to share those thoughts as they come.

Today I’m working with a book called Coal River that’s written by Vanity Fair reporter Michael Shnayerson. It focuses largely on mountaintop removal in the Coal River Valley, but I was absolutely shocked to read his discussion of the Upper Big Branch mine in the second chapter. This section is meant to frame Don Blankenship’s role in forcing the union out of Massey mines, but it’s an ominous set of pages considering what’s happened at UBB since this book’s publication in 2008. According to Shnayerson, when Massey acquired the mines at Montcoal in 1993, UBB was a union mine. Massey’s policy is that the union is disbanded when the company gets control, but miners are allowed to put unionization to a vote – which many thought they’d win because a significant number of those formerly unionized miners were rehired after Massey bought the mine. After a series of anti-union propaganda efforts, however, miners at UBB voted not to unionize, and as far as I can see there hasn’t been another vote.

Now, I won’t say that the United Mine Workers of America is a perfect specimen of unionism, not by any means, and of course I can’t say that the explosion at UBB wouldn’t have happened if it had been a union mine. I am just truly appalled at the overall lack of knowledge about the mine’s union status in the recent events and of how Massey circumvents union accountability in both underground and mountaintop mines. Maybe the UMWA is like MSHA (Mine Safety & Health Administration) in that it really can’t do much to protect miners simply because the coal companies are so much more powerful – so maybe the union status of this mine is pretty insignificant. But I’m still troubled by Massey’s systematic destruction of union mines in West Virginia as it expands its control over the state’s mines – this is not unlike some of the techniques used the 1910s and 1920s in West Virginia when miners were fighting for their right to unionize. And now that they have it, the union has been rendered impotent. It’s all part of the culture of impunity within which the coal companies work – neither the government nor the national union can do anything about their practices. What’s the point of having either, ultimately, if they can’t counter King Coal?

Repost: Making Mountains out of Coal Hills

Posted in history, union on May 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

(originally posted December 7, 2009)

This blog is the birth of an effort in a public, engaged, activist anthropology. It was conceived in the process of writing papers for graduate classes that will only be read by professors and myself; if I intend to be an anthropologist who reaches out past academia to make my work apply to real situations, then sharing the process that will hopefully develop into long-term work in Appalachia with as wide an audience as possible is the first step I can make in that direction. I hope to be part of an academic trend to dispel stereotypes of West Virginians as gun-toting rednecks and snake-charming evangelists (two common comments I hear when I introduce myself as West Virginian), and there is no reason to wait until I have a Ph.D. in order to begin. My passion for this project is longstanding, and no matter how many papers I write about this region, I will always have more to say and more to learn. I hope this space can be a forum for discussion of issues affecting Appalachia today as well as the negative image of its people that has been exacerbated by academia for so many years.

Of all the information I’ve come across in the past few years about West Virginia, what I discovered tonight actually moved me to take the action of starting a presentation of material that either inspires or enrages me. I’m writing a paper about labor history in West Virginia, because I think that the unique, radical history of labor activism in the state helps shape the efforts of activists fighting the processes of mountaintop removal and that it is absolutely necessary to have a deep knowledge of that history in order to truly comprehend mining today. History and historical process should influence anthropology and ethnography, because it is historical, economic, and political factors as much as the people who live there that make this region what it is. Appalachian anthropology often lacks this stress on history, which tends to lead to misinformed conclusions. But that’s a different discussion, and for now I want to look more deeply into history.

Anyone who grew up in West Virginia probably remembers 8th grade West Virginia history and the Golden Horseshoe exam. Part of the reason I think it is so important to highlight labor history in the state is because the state educational system downplays it so much. Personally, I can’t remember studying miners at all, and certainly not union resistance. I started doing some research about the Golden Horseshoe test and found that, in all the mini-quizzes I took, only one question was about the union: “What does UMWA stand for?” (United Mine Workers of America). While I don’t want to ignore the fact that many test questions are about Native Americans in WV and uprisings that they led, I wonder why the laborers are neglected. I imagine – though I have no proof – that it has something to do with the fact that the coal companies are so deeply entwined in the political system of the state and can use K-12 education as a forum to push their agenda. To me, radical labor history is a seriously important part of West Virginia’s identity, and it gets easily lost on a generation who will probably not end up working in the mines and whose parents are probably no longer union members.

I don’t want to pretend that union organizing is the only significant kind of resistance the state has ever seen – indeed, activism now is rarely union organized, as the UMWA has stated its support of mountaintop removal in the name of providing jobs. But I think the fact that young people in West Virginia don’t learn about labor history is hugely problematic. This means that we also never learned why some miners might want to fight against coal companies, so we could never really understand the exploitative conditions workers and their families lived under in the state’s single-industry economy. We didn’t learn about coal companies concentrating power in the hands of absentee mine owners and how the legal system established in at the end of the 19th century allowed coal barons to obtain native West Virginians’ lands for coal production. Is this because we would all then get angry and begin to question the hegemony of the concentrated power of the two coal companies left in the state? Would we all reclaim Sid Hatfield and Mother Jones as our favorite historical figures and give up Chuck Yeager, Belle Boyd, and James Rumsey?

There is no reason anthropologists and other academics cannot take up these questions. I see the role of anthropology as one that is obliged to question the structures that uphold inequalities and to do something to change them, and in West Virginia those structures are built around coal companies and their histories. Twentieth-century mining history shaped the course of coal in the state as a whole, and the better we understand that basic fact, the richer our ideas of Appalachia and Appalachians have the potential to be.

some sources from this discussion:
Batteau, Allen. 1990 The Invention of Appalachia. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.
Burns, Shirley Stewart. 2007 Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginian Communities. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.
Corbin, David Alan. 1981 Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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