At least 25 people were killed, and four are still missing, after an underground mine exploded Monday in a town so eloquently named Montcoal, W. Va.
Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, has yet to provide details on what exactly caused the explosion or on the extent of the damage. What we do know, however, is that the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion is the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in a quarter-century.
West Virginia's history is loaded with tragic disasters that are associated with coal corporations. If you have some free time, research the Sago mine disaster, the Matewan massacre or the Buffalo Creek flood, just to name a few. Living in West Virginia, you learn to accept that the coal industry is vital to our economy. You even learn to accept that West Virginia is willing to sacrifice the environment to maintain the industry. What I cannot accept, however, is that we are literally sacrificing our people to feed our growing need for dirty energy. Coal mining is an inherently dangerous occupation. The material being handled is combustible, and is often in the presence of natural gas fields. Coal miners put their lives on the line every day that they show up for work and coal corporations should be going above and beyond to ensure their safety.
Massey Energy Co. has been fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated violations involving ventilation plans and equipment. The Upper Big Branch Mine in particular was sited for at least 500 safety violations in 2009 and was fined only $168,000. That is less than Massey Energy makes in one hour of coal mining. When it comes time for the Massey Corporation to calculate profit versus safety, it is clear that profit will prevail every time. Until we find a way to adequately penalize coal corporations for their negligence, they will continue to provide the bare minimum in terms of safety requirements. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion is more than just a tragic accident and Massey Energy must be held accountable.
Environmental disasters rarely command the attention that the loss of a human life can. Mountains can continue to be blown up, and streams can continue to be filled in, but when humans are killed the world stops and it listens. This tragedy, if anything, has put a face to our nation's energy crisis. This event, and the state of West Virginia in general, stand as powerful symbols of the price that must be paid to feed our nation's addiction to consumption. Every time you turn on a light, make sure you remember the people who are risking their lives to make that happen. Any life unjustly lost is one too many. It is especially tragic, however, when people are risking their lives to provide for the needs of an entire nation.
Environmentalism in West Virginia is undoubtedly an uphill battle. It doesn't take too long to realize how incredibly powerful the forces are that stand against you. It seems that our citizens, and even our politicians, are at the mercy of coal corporations.
The majority of the time, I feel that with enough perseverance I can make a positive impact on the land and the people in this state. Today, however, I have to admit my spirit is a little broken. I guess when it comes down to it, here in West Virginia we live and die by coal. Right now, I just hope that this event will finally make people realize that changes need to be made and they need to be made now.