On this day ten years ago, thirteen men were still trapped following the explosion that rocked their mine over 28 hour before. Rescue efforts were in a state of disarray. The company, and many politicians, were busy doing damage control in front of the press to preserve their image.
But the men, those men who just went to work one morning to earn a living for their families, were facing the knowledge that they may never see their loved ones again. Being Appalachian family men, there is little doubt that their final moments of anguish—their final moments of fear—were not for their own souls, but for their families and the suffering they would endure in their absence.
I’ve been writing this blog for 6 years now, working to hammer home many points. The most important have included the coal industry’s means of winning the hearts and minds of our mountain communities, and how people in the environmental camps have ignored the industry’s acculturation of Appalachian values.
Since leaving the coal industry, I’ve tried to get folks to understand that we Appalachians, coal miner’s especially, do not respond to traditional environmentalist messaging. At minimum, those who agree with the environmental concerns are not going to push their throats further into the coal industry’s blade. More often, they will join in the socialized ridicule of those who are being othered, i.e. the environmentalists. What is needed is for people to understand the issues and the way we have been manipulated and controlled, then apply it to their own communication strategy.
As a 9th generation Appalachian and the 5th generation of my family to have worked in the mines, I can say with confidence that no outside organization will ever be successful in turning the tide in Appalachia. We have been fighting the coal industry for 150 years and fighting poverty for the last 50+. Millions of dollars have been funneled in through organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission, and yet we are still fighting the same battles.
So if you really want to help Appalachia, you’ll help us help ourselves.
By the time I started my coal mining “career” in 2007, the union was all but gone in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia. I had been raised union and knew the benefits that came with it, but in its absence, I ended up joining thousands of other young men naive enough to believe we didn’t need a union. It didn’t take long to realize how much control the coal companies had regained over all of our lives.
Flight – Williamson, West Virginia – Photo by Nick Mullins
Since leaving the mining industry six years ago, I’ve gone in search of justice for Appalachia. It has been a hard journey coping with the deepening realities of our situation and the staggering amount of damage that’s been inflicted upon our communities—culturally, economically, and environmentally. I’m not going to lie. There have been many times I’ve wanted to give up and just find a quiet little farm off to ourselves, but I can’t. Perhaps it’s sheer insanity, but I can’t stop fighting.
I realized early on that when the union left, much of the fight for justice in Appalachia left with it. The only people who seemed to care and continue the fight were the environmental organizations that came to stop mountain top removal. It was only natural that I would join in to see what I could do to help. While many were discounted as being out-of-touch and caring only about trees and salamanders, I knew their cause was much further reaching than environmental justice. They were also working to end the social and economic injustices being inflicted on us by the coal and natural gas industries.
I learned a great deal from my time spent working with organizations like Appalachian Voices and the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards . Because of their help and guidance, I was given the desire to create this blog and take a chance on a new life in Berea, Kentucky. I even applied to Berea College where I was accepted to attend one of the few tuition-free work colleges in the nation.
In January, I came across the first of a new series on the Daily Yonder titled “In the Black.” It is an accurate and gritty portrayal of coal mining as told through the personal story of former eastern Kentucky coal miner, Gary Bentley. Admittedly, I lost track and didn’t continue with the series before eventually dropping back in on his 16th installment, “An Unlikely Band of Brothers.” As with the first segment, a theme of drug abuse emerged, painting present day miners in a not so flattering light.
Widow of Vietnam veteran who was killed in in the Scotia Mine Explosion. Photo by Earl Dotter
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Scotia Mine Disaster that took the lives of 15 miners on March 9th, 1976, and a second explosion that took the lives of 11 mine rescue personnel on March 11th.
There is an unspoken promise that has been made by politicians and coal companies in Appalachia. It states that if people fight against the “War on Coal” companies can begin to open up mines again, thereby sending miners back to work making good money. There is the promise that Appalachia can be made great again, and that life will somehow improve beyond what it ever has been. But it is a promise that can never be fulfilled—it is a promise that has never been fulfilled.