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A Light Into The Darkness

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Last year, just after the Sago mining disaster, I wrote a piece that haunts me to this day.  So many of my relatives disappeared into the earth to work the mines, and so many of the folks who lived around them did the same, deep in the hills and hollers of West Virginia.  So it is, so it always has been.

What I wrote the morning after we all found out that the miners who everyone thought had survived in a miracle were actually being brought out of the mine without a breath of life left in them, save one remaining miracle who somehow, by some grace, managed to escape with his life barely hanging on from the gasses that seeped out of the rocks through the darkness that surrounded them, lulling the men into the twilight sleep that has felled many a miner in our hills, came straight from my heart.  From all of my years of watching these men breathe the dust of the earth, only to cough it back up again in a foul mass of blackness from their lungs after they re-emerged, squinting, into the half-light of evening at the end of their shifts.  West Virginia is filled with working folks, with men and women who have broken their backs and their souls to make the company balance book tally ring with black gold.

It isn't just the coal industry, but many others in West Virginia that keep the working folks busy.  And the opportunity to earn a good wage, with the risks laid flat out whan an individual makes the decision to work for a particular company, isn't some exercise in fraud (for the most part, although there is certainly an argument to be made where a particular company' shoddy safety record comes into play on occasion), but simply a matter of how much money one is willing to take in exchange for how much risk to one's life in the process.  Not nearly that cut and dried, though, in the real world as it might be argued in the abstract, as anyone who knows any person who works in the mining indiustry can tell you — be it management or miner alike.

But so much of our state's history and culture — including the immigrants who swarmed here to work the mines from Scotland, Ireland and Italy, among many others — that form so much of the bedrock of who we are still today, comes from the mines and the folks who worked them.

I am a very proud mountaineer, but I also know that this legacy of strength, of tenacity in the face of so much adversity and tragedy, was bought and paid for with so many lives in the name of expediency and cutting corners for profits.  Accidents happen, certainly, and they are unavoidable in an industry as dangerous as mining has always been and will continue to be, but there are a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered about the sheer number of mining disasters that my state has undergone — along with a whole ot of other states — in the past few years as prices for energy have skyrocketed and the push for profits has led to some ricky decisionmaking by some folks who ought to know better. 

And one of those questions ought to be why it seems to always take a tragedy of death or destruction before some changes are made to mining safety, when a proactive approach might yield a much safer — and better — result for everyone who works the mines.  Mining regulation and safety is built on a foundation of tragedy, and we simply have to do better going forward before another fire or flood or gas incident takes even more lives needlessly in an incident that could have been forseen and prevented with a little thought being put forward earlier.

The WaPo had a poignant piece in the Sunday magazine that brought all of this home in so many ways.  This single section is the story of so many folks that I know and have known through the years here:

Richard Crockett's grandmother ran a boardinghouse for miners, and Crockett's father had grown up packing lunches for the men and listening to their stories about the hard life in the tunnels. "It was worse back then," he says. "My granny had seen so many miners die or get mangled up. She made a vow that none of her boys would ever go into the mines." Like Plumley, Crockett, 51, had set his sights on college and a career. But after two years of struggling with the books, he dropped out and returned home to marry his high school sweetheart. Not long afterward, he was trying on a miner's hat.

Darren Blankenship, 46, had once thought of mining as a temporary job, a way to sock away some savings until he could afford college. His father was a miner at a time when much of the work was still done by drilling beneath the coal and blasting it with dynamite. "You could see when he came home how worn out he was," Blankenship says. "Early on, he worked in very small mines, where the seams were 28 to 30 inches high. He would tell us how he would have to crawl on his belly all day and lean on his side to take a drink. I remember telling myself I would never do that."

But Blankenship's temporary job ended up dragging on for 28 years.

I don't often send you to an article simply to get a better understanding of who we are as people who walk this planet together. But this article is a glimpse into the world of Appalachia, into the poverty and the tough choices that have to be made to feed your family and take care of your kids when there are not a whole lot of choices to be had.  While I was reading this, I kept thinking back to that scene in October Sky that I talked about last January…and wondering how many of these miners have those same feelings as they watch the light of the sky get blotted out by the darkness of the earth as it swallows them whole.

Take some time to read this article today.  It is some wonderful, stark writing, and a portrait of my state in all of its many facets, wrapped into one snapshot of an industry that is almost as old as the hills themselves.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com

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