The face of coal mining is much different today than it was 20 years ago. My father was a member of the mighty United Mine Workers of America until the day he died during the strike of 1993. Today, non-union coal giants like Massey Energy control much of the valuable coal reserves while union companies like Peabody and Island Creek are side notes of coal’s past.
One thing remains the same, however, the need to put safety first in the coalfields.
I read with interest this week that the superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine, where an explosion killed 29 men two years ago, is named in a “federal information,” a document that signals a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. This tells me that the feds have their sights set higher than the mine superintendent.
I applaud the feds for reaching up the corporate ladder rather than stopping at the mine foreman; the customary scapegoat in mine fatality probes of the past.
What makes this story even more compelling to me is the fact that my father worked much of his coal career at the same Montcoal mine complex where the fatal explosion occurred April 5, 2010. Cooperating ex-mine boss Gary May lives in a town just three miles up the Big Coal River from whence I was raised.
Two of the 29 men who lost their lives were classmates. And my brother, an art student, penciled the accompanying artwork to memorialize the dead miners.
So you may ask why I chose this subject for my column this week. It’s simple; Walker County also has a rich coal history.
I’m certain, like me, many of you were glued to your televisions as network news channels documented the anxious hours following the blast. We watched as hope escalated and families gathered at a nearby church. Many of us cried when all 29 were found dead four days after the blast.
I remember vividly when former W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin, weak from the four-day ordeal, said quietly, “We did not receive the miracle we were praying for.”
I will not soon forget those hard-working men who died below ground that day. And prosecutors should not close the book on their investigation until those responsible are brought to justice.
Jack McNeely is publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.