Notes: here's the latest op-ed by yours truly. I'm prolific lately because I'm inspired by the WV legislature. Not in a good way.
I had a weird driving experience last January, one that still gives me the creeps. It was one of the worst travel days that winter. It takes four hours to get to Weirton on a good day. This wasn’t one.
My car acted weird on the way up, but it saved the main event for the way back, which began as darkness, temperatures and snow fell.
Then the car went totally Stephen King on me. Starting on the narrow two-lane road between Weirton and Wheeling, which was shoulderless at the time, it would lose power — including lights — without warning at the worst possible times. Over and over, like it was controlled by some malevolent demon. It would limp on a bit. It was a wonder I didn’t get slammed from all directions.
It was like being a vehicle that was consciously trying to kill me.
Eventually I made it to a safe spot, got a rental and recovered the car a few days later, although I can’t say I’ve liked or trusted it much since.
A few days later the Freedom Industries chemical spill occurred. A friend commented that living in West Virginia is a bit like living in a state that is consciously trying to kill you.
It was dark humor, but she kind of had a point.
If you have lived in West Virginia for any significant length of time, disasters are the mileposts of life.
If the narrator of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock could say “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” we can do it here by reciting those random but recurring tragedies that maim, kill, and poison the bodies of our state’s workers and their families, not to mention the land, water and living things on which we depend.
Try it yourself. Here’s my short list, all but three from memory, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some:
n 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill; 300,000 lose safe water. Long-term effects unknown.
n 2010 Upper Big Branch Disaster; 29 miners killed, many families and communities devastated.
n 2006 Sago Disaster in Upshur kills 12 miners.
n 2006 Two die in Massey’s Aracoma mine fire shortly after Sago.
n 2000 Massey’s Martin County, Kentucky, slurry spill dumps millions of gallons of toxic sludge into hundreds of miles of waterways in that state and West Virginia. The Big Sandy River ran black.
n 1992 Blacksville mine explosion kills four in Monongalia County.
n 1986 Collapse kills five in Fairview in Marion County.
n 1978 Fifty one construction workers killed in Pleasants County when the Willow Island scaffolding collapsed.
n 1972 Pittston Coal’s Buffalo Creek “dam” collapses in Logan County, killing 125 people, leaving thousands homeless and wiping out several coalfield communities.
n 1972 Fire in the Blacksville mine kills nine miners.
n 1968 Farmington/Mannington Mine Disaster in Marion County kills 78 miners.
That’s a partial list. I apologize to survivors for those I left out. I know that most workers who die on the job do so one at a time with little fanfare, like my grandfather at Carbide in the 1950s. There were many more before my memory, including our worst mine disaster at Monongah in 1907, which killed at least 361 miners, and — so far — the worst industrial disaster at the construction of Carbide’s Hawks Nest Tunnel in the 1930s, which may have killed nearly 800 workers, many of whom were African Americans desperate for work during the Depression.
The events I’m referring to, at least some of which most readers will remember, are not natural disasters but rather disasters of commerce and examples of the risks West Virginians often have to take to care for their families or just to live here. I left out weather-related disasters like storms or floods, although some of these may have been impacted by mining and other human activities. I’m also leaving out public health studies that suggest declining life expectancies and very bad health outcomes in the coalfields.
The point of all this is that there’s really no way of denying that the industries that profit West Virginia’s owners periodically partake of human sacrifice.
There are some ways of fighting that regrettable fact, which is something one would hope state elected officials would try to do. One is to make the loss of human life through industrial activity as rare as possible through strict regulations reinforced with tough sanctions.
Big money, however, has made regulation a dirty word. Almost five years after Upper Big Branch, Congress has still failed to pass mine safety legislation. West Virginia’s own version of such legislation put more teeth into drug testing miners than enforcing best corporate safety practices, even though exactly none of the tragedies mentioned above were caused by drugged miners or workers. But even that weak 2012 legislation wouldn’t stand a chance of passing today.
The other way to protect workers and citizens is to ensure access to the courts of justice for workers and their survivors when they are hurt or killed on the job or as a result of corporate activity. This at least would provide a measure of compensation for the losses of a lifetime to family members while also imposing a price on those who take risks with the lives of others.
Incredibly, some members of West Virginia’s Republican controlled Legislature are contemplating legislation that would make it more difficult for survivors of those injured or killed on the job to sue employers for damages. Several of those who testified against House Bill 2011 at a public hearing on Jan. 21 were family members of workers killed at Upper Big Branch, who would have been financially devastated without access to the courts.
Given the rivers of crocodile tears shed in the 2014 election season by those who pretended to care for miners, one would think that a bill like this would have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of passing.
Then again, maybe Dante was right. In his Inferno, hell’s lowest place, reserved for those who betray, isn’t hot at all. It’s ice cold.
Cold as money.