“I was the fourth generation to go underground. Every day I went into the portal you saw at the opening of this clip, I thought I was doing for my family the best thing I could do. In the 1950s, my great-grandfather and grandfather had mined the Clintwood seam for Clinchfield Coal, several hundred feet above the one I was in. I felt so honored to be living up to their sense of pride, hard work, and sacrifice. But they were also union and my family always knew that the coal companies we were working for didn’t care about us as much as they did getting the coal out of our mountains and making a profit off of it.
What bothers me about this news piece, about coal company media, Friends of Coal and company organizations in general, is how they take the pride, heritage, and sacrifice of coal miners and use it to their advantage. They want us to be proud miners and stand up for coal when regulations threaten their profits and when we go to the voting booths, but they don’t want us to remember that our ancestors didn’t want to be coal miners in the first place. They don’t want us remembering that land agents came to the mountains and swindled land from good-hearted, generous people, including my own ancestors who traded billions of dollars’ worth in coal for 13 hogs and 12 rifles to give to family members who needed them. They want us to forget that when the mines opened up, they were terrible places to work. They want us to forget that when miners went on strike to demand better safety, living wages, and to break free from being paid in company scrip, the companies hired mercenaries that harassed and killed miners and their families.
This clip doesn’t talk about how the safety regulations that are in place only came about after disasters killed miners. From the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 that followed the explosion at Consol #9, to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 following the Scotia Disaster, all mine safety laws have been written in the blood of fallen miners—the crushed and maimed body’s of family men who were only working hard to support their loved ones.
Friends of Coal and coal-friendly media doesn’t want us to know that 104,846 miners have been killed in US Coal mines since 1900, nor do they want us to know that since 1960 an estimated 75,000 miners have slowly suffocated until their last breath from black lung, including my great-grandfather. When we do realize these things, we are expected to honor the fallen, to pay our respects by supporting coal because, “Without coal, we ain’t nothing!”
All the while, companies still protect their profits their interests. Johns Hopkins University recently closed their black lung program after the head doctor was caught taking money from coal companies to deny black lung benefits. Search “ABC News Black Lung” on Google if you want to find out more.
Money. Money is the name of the game. Up until 2006, only a handful of mines had more than one hour of breathable oxygen for each miner to escape a mine with. It wasn’t until we were forced to watch 12 miners slowly suffocate to death in toxic air on national news that regulations were put in place requiring coal companies to buy the extra self-rescuers—something that was commonplace in many union mines for decades. How could something so basic be overlooked by our legislators and mine safety regulation for so long? How could companies be so cheap for so many years and not pay for such life-saving devices?
Upper Big Branch proved that current safety legislation can only go so far. Everything that occurred leading to the explosion was from laws being broken by a company, a company who forced their miners to work in unsafe conditions. Legislators have no easy fix for this one. There’s no quick piece of legislation to pass requiring a new piece of safety equipment—no new training to implement that would satisfy the voters and still keep their coal company campaign contributions coming in. No, UBB was proof there is only one law left to pass. It’s the law that guarantees a miner’s job is protected if they refuse to work in unsafe conditions, a law that gives miners the right to say, “We are not going to work without proper ventilation. We are not going to work until the equipment is fixed. We are not going to work until every entry is properly rock dusted” all without the fear of being demoted or fired and replaced within an hour. But who has suggested such a law? Who has sponsored such a bill? Why is miner’s safety taking a back seat in our state and federal legislatures?
When I go to a place like the Hurricane Creek Miner’s memorial, and I see a bronze sign that says, “in memory of those who gave their lives for Black Gold” I’m reminded the companies want us to believe something different about our heritage. They want us to focus on what it is to be family men, hard-working coal miners who are proud enough to protect our livelihood. They want us to be Friends of Coal and to compare ourselves to the sacrifices of our forefathers without remembering that our fathers never wanted us to work underground for a reason. The companies instead want us to support them in what they’ve always done, get the coal out of the ground and sell it for their own profit. They don’t care about us, and they never will. If you want proof, find a disabled miner and ask them how the company helps them with their daily pain.
Billions and billions of tons have been mined and sold and we are still some of the poorest counties in the nation. My dad used to say, “If we had a dollar for every ton they’ve hauled outta here, we could have paved our streets with gold.” I’d have been satisfied to see our kids have the best schools, to see our people to have the best retirement and healthcare money could buy, the best safety when working—the best everything. The companies could have afforded it. The rest of the nation could have afforded it. Look at how much this nation was built upon our labors. How much steel was made to build to build bridges, to build railroads and ships to haul goods, to provide the cheap energy to make it all happen in towns and cities all across the nation? How much was used to build and power the skyscrapers for rich businessmen who wanted million dollar views from their offices? Back in the mountains, we are left with what? WITH WHAT?
They call Appalachia the Saudi Arabia of Coal. Why are we not as rich as Saudi Arabia, or The United Arab Emirates, or Kuwait? The Kuwaitis made so much from their oil before the Gulf War, no one in the country paid a single utility bill or had to pay for healthcare. That could have happened in Appalachia. That should have happened in Appalachia given our sacrifices, but the money was exported, taken to Wall Street, put into bank accounts and trust funds for kids who’d never know what it was to work a hard day in their life. It was money put into businesses to make even more money by taking advantage of other people’s labor. No, all they’ve left us with is broken backs, pain medication abuse, choked lungs, acid mine drainage, flooding, sedimented creeks, cancer epidemics, and weeping families staring at the plumes of black smoke billowing from shafts and portals.
This has been the true cost of coal to our people. Be proud of our sacrifices, and be angry at those who have taken advantage of us. Honor our heritage by giving our children a chance at a better life, one without the booms and busts of coal, without the raspy breaths of black lung, or the daily pain of a permanent injury. Give them one with an economic alternative to risking life and limb in mines, working for companies that no longer provide pensions and retirement healthcare. It’s time to move on, remember the past, and fight like hell for our children’s future.”
If you have a Friends of Coal license plate, take it off and give it back. Stop contributing to the coal company associations who are using and abusing us for their profit. We need to stop believing the coal industry when they tell us Appalachia is coal. We need to be Friends of Appalachia because Appalachia is good-hearted, honest-to-God, hard-working people who care about one another. Appalachia is people who were forced into an economic bind by rich outsiders seeking profit. It’s time we all realized the truth and tell the coal industry (and they’re bought and paid for politicians) that we don’t want them anymore. We want them to fix their damn messes and to get the hell out so we can build a stronger, better economy.