Big Coal River, nine years since a deadly mining disaster

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WV State Route 3 follows the path of the Big Coal River in southern West Virginia: coal mining began here in the early 20th Century, after the construction of railroads made this isolated area accessible
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In some towns built by coal companies, workers were paid in company-issued currency that they could use to rent homes owned by the company or to buy necessities from a store controlled by the company
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Big Coal River started to experience job loss in the late 1950s with demand for coal declining after World War II and with the development of ‘strip mining,’ which requires fewer workers than traditional underground mining but causes greater environmental damage
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Organized labor participation declined as competition for jobs intensified: the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) now has 35,000 members but is responsible for 90,000 pensions — at its peak the UMWA had 800,000 members
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In 1996, a subsidiary of Massey Energy bought mines at Montcoal, West Virginia — Massey, a non-union company which owned several local mining operations, branded itself as a pillar of the community with the slogan, “We live here too!”
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On 5 April, 2010 a massive explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal (UBB) killed 29 of 31 miners working underground — the youngest man was 20 years old, the oldest 61
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The US Department of Labor said Massey intentionally hid safety violations at UBB — air-quality monitors in the mine had been tampered with and the actual amount of accidents at the mine was double what Massey reported to the authorities
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Massey CEO Don Blankenship blamed the UBB disaster on ineffective federal safety regulations (which were imposed after a deadly fire at another Massey mine in 2006)
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The 29 men killed at UBB “died for a cause,” said survivor Kevin Lambert, “Every time you turn on your lights at home, you should think about them guys” … Lambert added, “We need coal, we’ve got to have it, bottom line”
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40 percent of area children live in poverty
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Federal inspectors found hundreds of violations at UBB, yet inspectors only received one complaint from a UBB worker about safety conditions in the four-year period prior to the disaster
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The population of nearby Whitesville has fallen almost 10% since the UBB disaster, to 466 people
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Whitesville’s population was 1,017 in 1950 when 14 major coal companies had 24/7 mining operations in the area, and the town had 23 restaurants and shops open until midnight
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In 1990, a local newspaper called Whitesville “a busy community, the center of activity for hundreds of families,” even after some 35 years of job losses and population decline
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A Whitesville man’s median income is $26,250 compared to a woman’s median income of $15,417 — most men work in the mining industry, while most women work in healthcare or retail
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At Whitesville Elementary School, a majority of students get government help to pay for lunch, and only a quarter of students are proficient in math
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UBB victims’ families asked the US Congress to create new safety regulations, that could have saved the lives of their relatives — these regulations have been proposed five times but never accepted into law
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After the disaster the UBB was ordered to pay a record $10.8 million federal fine, for 369 safety citations — the Massey mines were closed in 2013 after being bought by another company
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Federal safety inspectors missed opportunities to prevent the UBB disaster: an audit found that inspectors missed the full extent of safety problems at UBB, didn’t impose the toughest penalties on Massey, didn’t inspect all areas of the mine, and allowed significant delays by Massey in correcting known safety problems
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After serving one year in prison for conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws, former Massey CEO Blankenship ran for the US Senate in 2018 — his campaign again blamed federal regulation for the UBB explosion and argued the coal industry should be allowed to self-regulate
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Blankenship lost his election — in March 2019 he sued major US media outlets including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News for damaging his campaign by referring to him as a ‘convicted felon’

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