Valley communities grab nation's attention
SUNDIAL, W.Va. -- The news trucks traveled up and down the Coal River Valley last week, past homes and churches, past purple patches of redbud trees, past scores of signs with a single message: Pray for our miners.
They were headed to or from Marsh Fork Elementary School. Students were on spring break, but reporters sat in their small seats.
There, at the school on W.Va. 3, they used laptop computers to send stories and pictures to audiences around the world. A horrific explosion had rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine, a few miles away.
It wasn't the first time that the nation's eyes were focused on the communities along this route. Over the past year, the practice of mountaintop removal here has gained national attention from protesters, scientists and the Obama administration.
Now, the nation was seeing the dark side of underground mining. Here, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years has killed 29 miners.
Some say it doesn't have to be this way.
"Enough is enough," said Davitt McAteer, former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The only thing that is inevitable about mine disasters is that inevitably, we find that disasters are caused by companies' failure to comply with the laws and good safety practices."
Some companies have adapted to both environmental and safety regulations, he said. Others haven't.
"There is a sense, generally speaking, that coal is a dirty field, that coal is a bad field, that coal is a negative source of energy. And this accident confirms that for the bulk of the population," McAteer said. "If you link that with the fact that the industry also is taking a stand in the area of environmental considerations, that is a dead end-approach, then you suggest that the coal industry is on ... an unsustainable course that will lose public support."
Disasters like Upper Big Branch are often the only times when many Americans see what coal miners really do, said Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor to "Rolling Stone" magazine and author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," about the nation's reliance on coal.
"These people who work in coal mines are so invisible to the rest of the world all the time," he said. "No one sees their faces. No one has any gratitude for the fact that coal keeps half the lights on."
Coal produces a little less than half of the nation's electricity.
"This tragedy, unlike others, has brought together a lot of things," Goodell said. "It's bringing together a lot of these questions about how we mine and burn coal in a way that others mining disasters haven't."
Much of that is because of media coverage of Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship, whom Goodell calls "an almost cartoonish figure."
"He's been the sort of epicenter of this fight over lots of aspects over how we mine and burn coal -- not just miner safety, but mountaintop removal and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions," Goodell said.
Massey's safety record has come under scrutiny in the past week. In an interview with The Associated Press after the disaster, Blankenship defended that record.
"I think that I've proven that we run safer coal mines -- you know, most of the time -- and accidents sometimes happen. We've got to figure out what happened here," he said.
Some in the industry, such as CONSOL Energy president J. Brett Harvey, have said the only acceptable amount of accidents is none.
"What industry must change is our incremental approach to safety improvement because it creates an unintended tolerance to accidents," he said in a 2008 speech to the Utah Coal Association, days after the deaths of nine miners and rescuers at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. "We need to get to zero."
Over the past year, Massey mines in Coal River communities have been the center of many environmentalists' efforts. The group Climate Ground Zero, based in Rock Creek, has staged tree-sits and other civil disobedience activities at the company's properties.
Activists have also focused on the huge Massey slurry impoundment that towers over Marsh Fork Elementary. Massey recently pledged $1 million to help build a new school.
Last summer, more than 30 demonstrators -- including actress Daryl Hannah, former congressman Ken Hechler, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen -- were arrested at a mountaintop-removal protest outside Massey's Goals Coal preparation plant near the school.
For all the attention mountaintop removal gets, underground mining still generates more than half -- about 59 percent last year -- of West Virginia's total coal production.
Many environmentalists say they don't oppose underground mining, even as they push for a ban on mountaintop removal.
When asked whether that position has changed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Coal River Mountain Watch director Judy Bonds said it hasn't.
Bonds said her group advocates for responsible underground mining.
This disaster could shed light on the coal industry's impacts on communities, she said.
"Unfortunately, it takes disasters for people to look closely at a situation," Bonds said.
To her, a major issue with the coal industry is a lack of other employment options in the areas it dominates.
With mechanization in surface and underground mines, total coal-mining employment in West Virginia has plummeted from more than 55,000 in 1980 to a little more than 21,000, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
But in places like Raleigh, Boone and Logan counties, mining jobs remain the best -- and some of the only good-paying -- work around.
In fact, the West Virginia Coal Association puts the average coal miner's pay at about $62,500 a year. That's triple West Virginia's per capita income. With frequent overtime, miners can earn much more. Their health-care and other benefits are significantly better than those that come with most Appalachian jobs.
Near the Coal River Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, storefronts stand shuttered along W.Va. 3.
The group's office manager, Junior Walk -- a 20-year-old Eunice native whose father works in mining -- said the mines are the only option for many young men like him.
"That's the only way that these guys straight out of high school can raise a family," he said.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Alison Knezevich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.