by Beth Spence
Last week a friend and I visited the memorial dedicated to the miners who were killed in the 2010 Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster. The massive 48-foot granite structure with 29 ghostly silhouettes is a powerful tribute to the lost miners and to the industry that has been so dominant in the Appalachian region.
It is fitting that the memorial is in Whitesville, nestled in the Coal River Valley not far from where coal was first discovered in West Virginia, and that it stands on the very site where, in the days and weeks after the disaster, an organic memorial sprang up to which people brought hard hats and flowers, miners’ boots and music, hand-scrawled notes and reflective clothing.
When it was unveiled in July, a brother of one of the miners was quoted as saying, “Now they’ll never forget.”
He is right. Those who knew the UBB miners or who know or have come to know their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives, children and grandchildren will never forget the men who died on April 5, 2010.
But for the many people who didn’t know them personally, those miners, like hundreds before them, will slip all too soon into the collective memory of heartbreak and loss that is part of the fabric of the Appalachian coalfields.
And what we do to memorialize them says a lot about who we are as a people.
It has been repeated over and over again that mine safety legislation is written in the blood of coal miners. It is also written in the tears of their loved ones.
It is doubtful that anyone now alive remembers any of the more than 500 men and boys who died in the 1907 explosion at Monongah, WV. But we remember Monongah today not only because it was the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, but also because that terrible tragedy sparked the real beginning of federal oversight of mine safety.
Likewise, memories are fading of the 78 men who died in the 1968 explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, WV. However, the 1969 legislation born out of the sacrifice of those miners stands as the most sweeping industrial health and safety legislation ever enacted anywhere in the world, increasing the authority of the federal government to regulate mines and giving miners clearly stated health and safety rights.
In June, family members of three of the UBB miners visited lawmakers in Washington to try to persuade them to once more strengthen the nation’s mine legislation. Specifically, they asked for stronger penalties for officials who violate safety laws, whistleblower protection, subpoena power for investigators and increased fines for rogue operators who repeatedly ignore safety laws. They are still waiting for action.
A family member who attended the dedication of the memorial offered a challenge.
“I hope everyone in Washington will look and see what the families are going through and get some stiffer laws out there,” she said. “This should have never happened, but it did and it took a piece of our heart with it.”
Senator Jay Rockefeller continues to champion a bill carrying the name of the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, but he has expressed frustration that mine safety is being held hostage to political gridlock in Washington.
“I’ve been trying to pass my bill for two years, but we have yet to see movement,” he said. “That’s absolutely unacceptable. We owe it to these families, and to all the current and future coal miners and their families, to pass crucial reform.”
Rockefeller is right. No matter what issues divide us, the safety of miners is something that should be beyond partisan bickering, and mine law should be strengthened as it was in the years following the Monongah and Farmington disasters.
In his last years, Byrd was an ever more fierce advocate for mine safety, saying,
“The test of a great country such as ours is how serious we are about protecting those among us who are most at risk… Those men and women who bravely labor in such dangerous occupations as coal mining to provide our country with critical energy should be protected from exploitation by private companies with callous attitudes about health and safety.”
The memorial at Whitesville is a moving visible reminder of the price paid by the Upper Big Branch miners and their families to provide that energy. It is good that they are so honored. But the truest measure of our recognition of their blood sacrifice is what we do in their memory to protect the living. So far, it has not been nearly enough.
Beth Spence is the coalfield specialist for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. She served on the independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch disaster.