When we pull some “juice” from the wires, it has been supplied, about half the time, courtesy of the coal mining communities. Whenever we scoop a teaspoon of baking powder, drive down a street, shine a flashlight, or brush our teeth, we are using one of several thousand by-products generated by the coal economy. We are all inextricably bound to these coal-mining communities and yet we all know so little about them.
The tragedies at West Virginia’s Sago and Alba mines allow us to look more deeply into the rural region that has been at the heart of America’s industrial power. The suffering of the men who died in the mine and the grief of their families should not be in vain.
Death is never far away in West Virginia’s coal camps, and there have been other mine tragedies in rural West Virginia.
Nearly a century ago, Monongah was the site of the worst mine disaster in US history – a December 1907 explosion killed 361 miners. In 1940, a fire and explosion killed 91 miners in Bartley. In 1968, the night crew of the Consol No. 9 Mine, near Farmington, suffered a disaster similar to the one in Sago. The bodies of 59 miners were brought to the surface, but 19 remain forever entombed.
In 1971, one of the deadliest floods produced in US history, caused by negligent strip mining, occurred at southern West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek Hollow. Heavy rain caused the coal slurry pond to break, and a raging torrent of water left 118 people dead and over 4,000 homeless.
For more than a century, there has been a constant battle between the government, the United Mine Workers, and the coal industry about mine safety. Often, major disasters like these have prompted new legislation to protect the miners, as we have seen in the wake of this latest disaster. Indeed, mining is safer today, despite recent rollbacks of safety requirements. Fewer miners are killed now because there are far fewer of them. In 1948, 168 million tons of coal was produced by 126,000 miners. Last year, 15,000 West Virginia coal miners produced about 128 million tons of coal, using high-tech machines. Yet coal mining remains the deadliest of the extractive industries, with about half of all US mining fatalities each year occurring in coal mines.
While the swift actions of the state and federal government are laudable, the context in which these chapters of Appalachian coal mining occur should be noted. There has been a long tradition in West Virginia and other Appalachian coal-producing communities in which the land and the people have not received adequate respect. For example, there are plenty of laws on the books that are not rigorously enforced, and there is a long tradition of various governmental bodies turning a blind eye to infractions.
In addition to the constant threat of death, miners live with another crisis that is a result of this rather neglectful relationship. Up close, West Virginia is a disturbing overlap of two parallel universes. One is the functioning universe of employed West Virginians we saw in the town of Tallmansville, where people hope to diversify their economy and state by insisting on education for their children and working hard to develop tourism and business parks.
The other West Virginia could be mistaken for a slum in some part of the third world. Coal camps still line creeks like peas in the folds of an apron, but they are shrunken and dried out. Dilapidated houses and trailers litter the hollows like piles of waste, mixed up with denuded forest, jagged abandoned swaths of strip mines, and toxic slurry ponds. Raw sewage flows down the creeks in some of the most beautiful mountains in our country. Clumps of toilet paper still cling to tree roots, left from the last cycle of flooding.
Big cities like Welch or Mullens that once teemed with a hundred thousand people or more are now cavernous, disintegrating mazes. Aging and disabled miners, their widows, and a lost generation of people who have never lived in a viable economy hang on, passing time in front of the TV or “settin'” on the porch.
My husband, photographer Ken Light, and I spent four years in southern West Virginia gathering images and oral histories that illustrate the unique intersection of history, geography, and culture in this region.
These mountain people present a cautionary tale as an aggressive, take-no-prisoners brand of free enterprise is adopted around the world. The very same dynamics were at play in this region long ago when outside investors invaded, treating the land and the people of Appalachia as commodities, available for use as long as they were needed. Government wilted under pressure to accommodate the growth of the coal-mining industry, and the land and people were left without an advocate.
• Melanie Light is a writer and the executive director of Fotovision, a nonprofit supporting documentary photography. Ken Light is a documentary photographer and on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. They are coauthors of “Coal Hollow,” www.coalhollow.org.