'Coal Country' Mines Seam of Class Anger in West Virginia Explosion
If Don Blankenship were a fictional character, critics would say he was a cartoon evil capitalist. Unfortunately, he’s real. One of his lesser crimes was to dump toxic coal slurry into disused mineshafts, poisoning the water of his neighbors, all to save $55,000. While they sickened, he piped his own water from the nearby town of Matewan. Yes, that Matewan. He has characterized strikes as “union terrorism.”
As chair and chief executive of Massey Energy, he received production reports from Upper Big Branch mine every half hour, including weekends. And no wonder, Blankenship’s compensation was tied to production, and UBB produced $600,000 worth of top-quality coal every day in a mile-deep operation near Whitesville, West Virginia.
That is, until it exploded in a completely preventable disaster that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010.
The workers knew something bad was bound to happen. Methane readings were too high, the ventilation and air control systems were a shambles. One day the mine was sweltering, the next freezing cold. They operated in a fog of coal dust and exhaustion. Management threatened anyone who spoke up.
“Coal Country,” a play recently re-opened at Cherry Lane theater in New York, tells the story of the disaster through the words of the miners and their families. They are backed up by stunning original songs by Texas songwriter Steve Earle, who accompanies himself on guitar or banjo from the corner of the stage. “The devil put the coal in the ground,” he growls, and you can believe it. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created the play, and Blank directs it.
Performance Coal, the subsidiary of Massey that ran Upper Big Branch, was created specifically to exclude the union. Gary Quarles (played by Thomas Kopache), recalls that when he first hired into the mine, he couldn’t believe how management shouted at the men. That wasn’t tolerated on his union jobs. Unrelieved overtime was another difference.
Managers brought in experienced miners like Quarles for their knowledge about extracting coal, but dismissed their knowledge about how to run a safe mine. Union mines are safer according to Phil Smith of the United Mineworkers of America, "because workers elect their own safety committees and they know they can report hazards without fear of retribution.”
There is always explosive gas and coal dust in underground mines, but through proper ventilation and baffles to control the air, you can keep the danger at bay and prevent explosions. But the mine operator has to invest in the proper equipment and keep it maintained. And supervisors need to get the message that safety is the priority.
At Upper Big Branch, Blankenship sent the opposite message. The operator didn’t invest in the right equipment, and wouldn’t stop the operation to maintain the existing equipment. A shaft that leaked methane from a disused upper mine should have been sealed, but instead it was filled with garbage. When Blankenship was told to create an additional airway at UBB, he reportedly responded, “We dig coal, not rock.”
In the three years before the explosion, mine inspectors cited the mine 1,100 times, and ordered portions of the mine closed 60 times. And that was despite management having advance warning of the inspections. But even the $900,000 in proposed fines were hardly an incentive to stop the lucrative operation.
The inspectors knew there was intimidation. They told miners, “You don’t even need to be seen in an interview with us, just tell us what’s up as you walk by.” Management kept two sets of logs, creating a sanitized record for inspectors.
In the play, Stanley “Goose” Stewart (Carl Palmer), tells his wife the mine is a ticking time bomb. She urges him to quit. Then it happens: Stanley and Tommy (Michael Lawrence) were on shift that day, but far enough away from the explosion that they sustained only injuries. They were the only survivors. Tommy’s son, brother, and nephew were killed.
At issue in the current strike at Warrior Met coal in Alabama are 12 and even 16-hour shifts. At UBB, too, long, stressful shifts were common. In “Coal Country,” Mindi (Amelia Campbell) recalls her husband coming home many nights so tired he couldn’t eat, so tired he could barely talk. He was killed in the explosion.
The play communicates the anger that develops when communities are exploited, disrespected, and torn apart. Between coal operators like Blankenship and the Sackler family-created opioid crisis, with collusion by Democrats and Republicans alike, it’s no wonder Bernie Sanders won every county in the 2016 West Virginia Democratic primary, where independents can vote. Then Trump won the state, twice. Steve Earle says the play and the songs speak “to and for people who didn’t necessarily vote the way I did… but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything in common.”
“Coal Country” had been open for just a week when Covid hit New York in March 2020. A lot has happened since. On April 5, the tenth anniversary of the disaster, Earle live-cast a solo version of the play. In August, his 38-year old son, musician Justin Townes Earle, died in an accidental overdose involving fentanyl. Since March 2020, West Virginia has lost 6,600 lives to Covid and another 2,800 to opiate overdoses.
A lot has happened on worker safety, too. “Essential workers” found out what that meant: You have to go to work even if your employer refuses safety measures. An explosion of worker activity followed, including safety walkouts that seeded further organizing, such as the victorious union vote at Amazon on Staten Island.
Miners were deemed essential, even though they often have reduced lung function, even if they don’t have a black lung diagnosis. The Mineworkers union demanded a Covid standard that could be enforced throughout the industry. Finally, in March 2021, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration provided voluntary guidelines.
“Thousands of our members were exposed to the virus at work, hundreds contracted it and took it home to their families, and some died,” Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts said. “Much of that would have been prevented had the previous administration put worker safety first.” The union is still demanding an enforceable standard, not just guidelines.
29 Lives, 12 Months
Blankenship’s conduct was so egregious he is the first coal operator to be sent to jail for a mine disaster. The CEO was found guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards. His 12-month sentence felt like another slap in the face to the families, but worse insults were yet to come. After Blankenship got out, he sent a glossy booklet to the Upper Big Branch workforce and the grieving families explaining how he wasn’t really guilty, and the explosion was really the government’s fault.
“I just want him to stay quiet,” Quarles said in 2020. “But when he opens his mouth about [Upper Big Branch], I know he’s lying. Anyone who was there, who knows what went on in those mines, knows he’s lying.”
Jenny Brown is the author of Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight over Women’s Work and a former editor of Labor Notes.