The Coal Industry Mantra: Jobs First, Safety…well….

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Nothing quite says conflict of interest more than installing a former mine company executive as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Anyone who has worked in a coal mine knows that only loyalty to the company bottom line could raise someone from the ranks of a coal miner to that of a CEO. Coal miners also know that when it comes right down to it, a safe working record takes back seat to the number of extra hours you put in and how well you produce coal. Safety takes time, and time costs the company money.

Over 104,000 miners have been killed in this country’s coal mines since 1900. We’ve seen tragedy as recent as Upper Big Branch, Crandall Canyon, and Sago. All of these travesties could have been prevented had company executives put the safety of the worker ahead of production and financial gain.

The image featured at the top of this post shows the Hurricane Creek Miners Memorial a few miles outside of Hyden, Kentucky. For some, the memorial serves as a reminder of the 38 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who lost their lives on a cold December day in 1970. For others, it symbolizes one of the greatest flaws within our nation’s history of mine safety legislation.

The Hurricane Creek mine explosion occurred a year to the day following the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. The act, a piece of legislation that could only be considered reactionary to the 1968 Farmington Disaster, was the most sweeping piece of mine safety legislation that had ever been put forth in our country. It mandated new safety equipment, new enforcement protocols, monetary fines for noncompliance, and it even began taking into account health issues to include black lung.

Yet despite its being passed, 260 miners died in our nation’s coal mines the following year—including the 38 men at Hurricane Creek.

Even though the act saw to it that laws and regulations were put into place, very little funding was given to the newly formed Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA). Without proper funding, the agency was woefully understaffed, lacking the necessary resources to inspect each mine and enforce the new laws. It was only after mine safety advocates, such as the United Mine Workers and widows of the fallen miners, raised hell about it, that more funding was put to the purpose. Even then, it was still not enough.

Seven years later, the Scotia disaster would lead to the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Yet again, funding issues plagued mine safety enforcement agencies.  It wouldn’t be until 2007— 40 years later—that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would receive enough funding to hire the number of inspectors necessary to perform all the mine inspections mandated by law. That funding only came as a reaction to the Sago disaster in 2006 where rescue efforts were nationally televised.

Time and time again we see the reactionary nature of mine safety legislation and funding. Even today, companies and politicians work in concert to weaken mine safety laws. Kentucky has reduced the number of inspections required by their state mine safety agencies, and West Virginia has attempted to completely eliminate theirs. Trump’s nomination of Zatezalo and his subsequent confirmation by Senate Republicans, all work to prove that little has changed.

I fear for coal miners today, more than I have in years. Right now, there are thousands of miners desperately seeking work. Coal companies are aware of the abundant labor market and are undoubtedly taking advantage of it. I’m sure the companies are preaching safety as they always do, threatening that any miner caught taking shortcuts will be fired. Then they remind miners that any upcoming layoffs will be based upon individual performance.

If there was ever a more crucial time for mine safety agencies to step up for the miner and enforce the laws that are meant to protect them, it is now. I feel many federal and state inspectors know this and are trying, but they are becoming increasingly powerless as politicians continue to cut budgets and impair mine safety laws.

 

 

 

Stereotyping Appalachians Feeds Only the Coal Industry

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Photo by ridvan_celik / iStock.

Trump won the vote in Appalachia because people are tired of being looked down upon. Considering the work of powerful industry interests, a century’s worth of negative stereotyping, and culturally insensitive protests against coal—a source of people’s pride, heritage, and income—it’s not difficult to understand how. 

My family has lived in Appalachia for nine generations, and we have worked hard all our lives without asking for a great deal. We were never drawn to extravagance, nor did we need to keep up with the Joneses. Simplicity and family were the means to much of our happiness. As long as we had a decent home, food, and the time to watch our children grow up with a good moral compass, we were fulfilled. “It’s not your needs that get you into trouble—it’s your wants,” my grandfather would often say.
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This Former Coal Miner’s Perspective on Climate Change

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Photo by Nick Mullins

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who make a profit extracting and selling coal, oil, or natural gas, are telling us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers. Continue reading

With Liberty and Justice for All*

 

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March 16, 1965: A college student calls for an ambulance to aid a fellow demonstrator, while an injured girl is carried away in the background. Mounted police broke up a march for voting rights in Montgomery. | (AP Photo/Perry Aycock)

The following is an excerpt from a reflection I wrote December 2015.

 


It was a warm afternoon when we arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Our Blue Toyota Corolla was overflowing with camping gear, the large Thule setting us apart as travelers, not locals. We’d never been in Mississippi, but as soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Not fear, nor nervousness necessarily, but I was unsettled. The words of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation at Berea College spoke clearly in my mind, “I still fear when my son travels into the south.” I looked back at the kids and knew we were okay. We were white. I felt sick to my stomach.

Our final destination for the day would be the Chewalla Lake campground where we could stay the night for less than $10, a practice we repeated many times to extend our travel budget for the six-week long tour. As had become customary, we needed to make a stop for supplies before setting up camp that night. Without any local grocers open in Holly Springs, Wal-Mart became our supplier.

My son and I made our way into the restroom, and when it came time to wash our hands, Daniel stood beside me at the adjacent sink and asked solemnly, “Dad, why did someone carve that into the wall?” He pointed towards the words, “I HATE ALL N*****S.” I lowered my head and told him, “Because making things equal by law doesn’t mean it changes some people’s hearts.” I looked up at him and his face was grim. Despite our many discussions about racism, it was his first time seeing it and understanding that it was real. Continue reading

Coal Miners Are Good People

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People ask me “Why do Appalachians vote against their own best interests?” Some are friends who are honestly trying to understand the situation from a point of concern. I know that they seek the cause for the discrepancy, rather than assume coal mining families are incapable of making intelligent political decisions.

The question still stings however,  and whether meant or not, it brings up the age old stereotypes of Appalachian people as being backward and ignorant. Often I can separate those who mean well, from those who are just out to place the blame on someone for our nations current political troubles. The latter tend to follow up their question with another statement— “They are bringing it on themselves.”

Such outright condescension pisses me off and explains much of why people back home vote exactly the way they do.
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Coal, Climate, & Environmental Backlash | 2017-18 Tour

Power-Plant-ColorHow did we get to this point?

After years of hard work, and millions of dollars invested into environmental advocacy campaigns, marches, and protests, something strange happened. The political landscape of the nation shifted once again to support economics over environmental protection. Regulatory agencies meant to protect public health and safety have been overtaken by industry officials yielding dangerous conflicts of interests. Important studies and enforcement initiatives are facing defunding, and even social justice has come under threat. As our country continues to broaden its political divide, many people are left wondering what went wrong?

Appalachia has risen as a microcosm to the nation’s underlying socioeconomic problems, and while there exists a great potential to find truth within the Appalachian experience, there’s a problem. Continued exploitation of Appalachia’s social issues within the national media has left people focusing on the long held stereotypes associated with the region. Without understanding the deeper contexts that shaped Appalachia into what it is today, little hope will be found in better understanding our national divide.

Beginning in October, Nick Mullins, former fifth generation underground coal miner, energy transition advocate, and author of the blog The Thoughtful Coal Miner, will be undertaking a nationwide speaking tour to discuss the economic and political forces that turned one of the nation’s largest labor rights strongholds, into a region of pro-industry attitudes based upon modern conservative values. Through his presentations, Mullins hopes to help audiences understand the issues working-class communities face, while illustrating the need to rethink our communications framework so that we can build stronger relationships both politically and culturally.

Topics will include:

  • Corporate Manipulation of Cultural & Political Values
  • Environmental/Liberal Backlash in Rural Communities
  • The Power of the Jobs vs. Environment Debate
  • Audience-Based Communications Strategies

 

In addition to presentations and lectures, screenings of the documentary film Blood on the Mountain (www.bloodonthemountain.com) will be offered.*



Donations
are being accepted to pay travel and living expenses and to allow presentations to be offered to groups and venues at reduced rates, or for free where honorariums cannot be obtained.

For more information, or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use the contact form on the 2017-18 Tour page.

Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We’ve Lost Who We Are

Appalachia, VA – Photo by Nick Mullins

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be?

Weren’t the people of Appalachia once known for being robust, resilient, and having an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn’t they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal companies came in? Weren’t they enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that have made these recent layoffs so detrimental?
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The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

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Photo by Nick Mullins

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.

So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.

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The Manipulation of Southern Pride

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Stone Mountain, Georgia | Photo by Jim Bowen

When I was a teenager, I went to a meeting of the new Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter in my home town. I quickly became caught up in the ideals of the SCV and hoped desperately that I could find a Confederate soldier within my lineage so I could join.
I was not racist thanks to a good upbringing, nor were many of the SCV members in my home town. The head of the chapter made it clear to newcomers that racism would not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form. Despite this fact, we were nevertheless engaged in downplaying the atrocity of slavery to reconcile our past and defend our identity as southerners.
In our shallow minded understandings, we believed the war was about classism and freedom from oppression, arguing that the south was fighting over interpretations of the Constitution regarding states’ rights. By being a part of the SCV, I thought I was honoring the tens of thousands of poor southern farmers who fought to defend their families against “northern aggression.” I repeated statements I’d heard about Lincoln’s own racism, along with other facts contrasting the purely social justice narrative we saw as being taught about the war.

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As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

 

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Abandoned Company Home – Trammel, Virginia. Photo by Nick Mullins

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

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