06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Difficult Questions in the Wake of a Coal Tragedy

The explosion on April 5 at Massey Energy's Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia was an unspeakable tragedy. The grief felt by the residents of the communities who have for years cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the Appalachians, from which they've derived centuries' worth of livelihood and culture, must be unfathomable.

That Massey Energy ignored its responsibility to make its mines and mineworkers safe; that the deaths of 29 miners were largely avoidable; that Massey CEO Don Blankenship's reaction to the Big Branch tragedy basically amounted to "s**t happens;" that since April 5, Massey Energy's mines have continued to collect safety violations -- these are facts that arouse not grief but anger.

But the responses of West Virginia's elected officials have been mixed. Senator Robert Byrd expressed palpable fury, condemning outright Blankenship's insouciance. Representative Nick Rahall introduced a House resolution honoring the deceased miners and requested congressional hearings.

Senator Jay Rockefeller's and Representative Allan Mollohan's statements deliberately (and weakly) avoided any reference to Massey Energy. Representative Shelley Moore Capito fretted about the perception of coal.

All of them continue to call for investment into "clean coal" and "carbon sequestration," greenwashed catchphrases that are pipedreams of industry hacks. With the exception of Senator Byrd, they also support a Dirty Air Act, which would allow coal companies to continue their polluting practices.

Instead of clinging to the status quo, West Virginia's elected officials must use this tragedy as an opportunity to ask difficult questions about the future of coal in West Virginia. Here are some of mine:

Question 1: Is standing up for "coal" the same as standing up for "coal miners"?

Answer: Not at all. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, has called the Big Branch tragedy a completely "man-made calamity." Massey Energy flaunted safety codes and protested 1,342 safety violations at the mine between 2008 and April 5, including 57 violations in the month before the explosion.

Don Blankenship rose through the ranks of Massey Energy because of his reckless disregard for safety and workers' rights. He busted unions even though union mines are safer than non-union mines, because cheaper non-union coal would boost profits and drive "union coal out of business." When miners wanted to organize, Blankenship threatened to shut down their mines.

And when the United Mine Workers sent assistance to the Big Branch mine after the explosion, Massey turned it away.

Question 2: Is the health of the coal industry tied to the health of West Virginia?

Answer: Yes: the coal industry continues to increase production, but West Virginians lose jobs and the environment is destroyed.

The ranks of miners in West Virginia have fallen from over 60,000 to below 20,000 in the past thirty years. In the same time period, West Virginian coal production has nearly doubled. These divergent trends are partly the cause of mountaintop removal coal mining, which, despite its massive footprint, kills jobs. Massey, the largest coal producer in central Appalachia, gets 47 percent of its coal from mountaintop removal mining, but now employs less than a quarter of West Virginia's miners.

King Coal's negative effects go far beyond the economy. The deplorable practice of mountaintop removal destroys the Appalachians and everything that relies on them, including West Virginia communities.

Mountaintop removal releases cancer-causing particulates into the air and contaminates water. Giant reservoirs of toxic coal slurry loom over towns and schools. Coal companies are required to restore mountain elevations after their mines are exhausted, but they do little more than hydro-seed the gravel they've lumped where mountaintops used to exist. Other than sparse patches of crab grass, nothing can grow or live on these "reclaimed" mountains. And as coal seams become thinner and more expensive to mine, the effects of mountaintop removal are only exacerbated.

Question 3: What opportunities exist for West Virginia?

Answer: Even Senator Byrd, for years the biggest champion of the coal industry in the Senate, recognizes the need for West Virginia to innovate and explore other forms of energy, such as wind, and has praised West Virginia's Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, the largest wind farm on the eastern seaboard.

West Virginia can't wait until the mountains are stripped bare to transition to wind energy. If a mountaintop is blasted away, the lower the wind speeds are at the top, and the slower wind turbines spin. This generates less electricity and less potential for bringing more wind energy development to West Virginia. Though the EPA has recently tightened restrictions on mountaintop removal permits to protect water sources, the practice still continues -- the opportunity to build appropriately situated wind farms in West Virginia is literally being blown away.

Transitioning to wind won't just reinvigorate a way of life, it will save lives -- from miners who won't have to worry if their boss is taking every precaution to prevent methane gas buildups, to spouses who won't have to look ahead with dread to the day a partner is diagnosed with black lung, to teachers and parents who won't have to worry about the air quality at the local elementary school. It will create high-skilled, high-paying, safe jobs that West Virginia has lost to coal company mining practices and coal industry greed. It will preserve fundamental aspects of Appalachian culture. And though some wind energy projects have faced opposition from environmentalists, real solutions exist to minimize the environmental impact of wind farms -- unlike coal mining.

The utterly reprehensible actions of Massey Energy and the shoulder-shrugging statements of Don Blankenship reinforce the fact that standing up for coal is not the same as standing up for West Virginia. West Virginia has paid a heavy price in corporate abuse, political corruption, job losses, and environmental destruction for the stubborn ignorance of its elected officials. West Virginia's leaders can, and should, do better -- and they can start by answering some tough questions.

Allies and Resources

Coal River Mountain Watch:
Coal River Wind Project:
Power Past Coal:
I Love Mountains:
Larry Gibson:
Appalachian Center for Economy and Environment:
Appalachian Voices:
Mountain Justice Summer:
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth:
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition:
Fire Don Blankenship:;