Long History of Poor Coal Mining Conditions in West Virginia

Since the early 1900s, West Virginia has seen a string of devastating coal mining accidents with little true response in regulations or accountability for owners. In more than a century, not a single coal mine owner has been charged and convicted for violations that led to the loss of lives in their mines. Now, all that might change.

On April 5, 2010, West Virginia saw one of the most tragic coal mining accidents since the early 1970s. An explosion took place at Massey Energy's Upper Big branch mine in Montcoal, costing 29 workers their lives. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the tragedy was directly linked to a serious of infractions and safety violations. In response to this, Donald L. Blankenship, owner of the mine, and two subordinates were indicated in November, 2014. As the trial rages on, many watch in anticipation to see if the jury will make history for coal miners throughout the country. If they find the defendant's guilty, it will be the first time a coal miner is held accountable for the deaths of their workers.

An Industry Marked by Infractions & Bullying

Many coal mine owners are known to be strong and intimidating figures, using their power and influence to control politicians and courts for their own protection. In Blankenship's case, the jury charged him with ignoring health and safety laws to increase profits, scheming to hide violations from inspectors, and putting false information on securities filings.

This case is not unique, however. Take, for example, two mine explosions in 1906 that led to 135 miner deaths. Owner of this mine, "King" Sam Dixon, controlled the newspapers and Republican officials, ensuring minimal negative talk was made about the incidents and no legal action was ever taken. Though reports showed that the owner had violated mine safety laws, juries instead placed the blame on "human error."

Just a year later, in 1907, 361 miners died in a massive mine explosion in Monongah. Though the Federal Bureau of Mines was created in 1910, it had no enforcement or regulatory powers of any kind. Even a century ago, American coal miners were forced to rely on themselves and labor unions for protection, though the latter is not always guaranteed. Allegedly, mine owners in West Virginia were not happy about organization efforts, hiring "gun thugs" and deputy sheriffs to put a stop to any attempt to lobby for safer working conditions. Wars even broke out in the mines from 1912 to 1913, proving the heated tension between both sides. In 1920, another mine war broke out, requiring U.S. Army intervention.

Eventually, a 1933 reform helped open the gate for more union organizers. As a result, the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) helped reduce coalfield deaths by one third in West Virginia. Since 1995, there have 330 non-union coal miner deaths in comparisons to the 88 UMW deaths.

Will Blankenship be held accountable?

The issue of Blankenship's case is much bigger than the 2010 mining accident that took place on his property. Rather, this case represents all the incidents of mining accidents caused by owner negligence and blatant violations. If Blankenship is convicted, it will make history and will hopefully create a precedent for future cases.

However, even with a conviction, many coal miners across the country will still be forced to work without the protection of union contracts in many mines. In workplaces that put productivity above employee safety, history has shown us that disaster always awaits.


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