The Upper Big Branch mine disaster has me thinking about my family. Grandpa Egnor was a coal miner in West Virginia in for 25 years. He mined coal in conditions that we can’t begin to imagine today. When I was just a little child he told me about how sometimes they would mine along seems that went back into the wall of the mine. They would dig out the coal, sometimes only 36” tall use a little cart to slide back further and further from the tunnel, working over their heads to break out the coal and send it back towards the tunnel. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt what it must be like to be claustrophobic.
He did it for the same reason that miners in WV do it today; it was the job that paid the best that is if you did not want to be a moonshiner. The dangerous, back breaking work in the mine allowed him to keep his 13 kids fed and a roof over their heads. But it came at a cost, black lung. By the time Dad (the youngest of Grandpa’s children) was 11 Grandpa’s time in the mine was drawing to an end. He would cough and hack all the time. Never being a large man he began to shrink in stature and strength.
"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"
My Dad’s family left West Virginia then, mostly because his mother decided that she would not let her youngest sons go into the mines like their father and older brothers had. Grandma Georgia was a woman of strong will. She insisted that Grandpa move the family away form the dangers of the mines, and that is what they did. It is how my older uncles all wound up in the auto factories, but that is another story.
My Grandpa’s working life in the mine never left him. Getting away from that environment allowed him to live for another 22 years, but even at the end the mines controlled too much of his life. In his last week we went to see him in the hospital. It was a lovely spring day and the window in his room was open, making the curtains billow and flex.
We had been there about ten minutes when he started to shout that we had to get out, we had to leave now! He looked straight at Dad and said “Get them kids out! They are going to die if you don’t!” Dad was quite rightly freaked out and we kids being eight, six and four were all crying and wondering what was going on? Why was Grandpa yelling?
It was the curtains. Grandpa had been in more than one mine collapse in his time underground. The shadows on the curtains and the movement of them in his peripheral vision gave him a flash back to a day when the roof fell. He lived through it, but not all of the men he worked with did. It was the last time I saw him alive, he died five days later, coughing up mucus from coal damaged lungs.
Things have changed in coal mines since Grandpa’s time, but not enough. The work is still incredibly hard and very dangerous. How could it be otherwise when you are working underground with heavy equipment, taking a flammable rock out of walls that are pocketed with methane bubbles? We have better equipment, we have a far better understanding of what the dangers are, but the fact is this will never be something you can do with any assurance of safety.
Even if all the safety procedures are followed (and they are not at far too many mines) just working with coal still exposes the miners to black lung. Every year about 4,000 new cases are diagnosed, or about 4% of the total coal mining work force. In a coal mine there is just no way to avoid getting covered in coal and rock dust. That dust eventually gets into the lungs and damages them.
This is price we pay for our cheap dirty electricity. The United States has enormous receivers of coal, far more than oil or natural gas. Half of all the electricity generated in the United States is through the burning of coal. It is a huge problem for us in terms of greenhouse gases and the disposal of the coal ash (which among other things is lightly radioactive from the Carbon 14 that is found in coal).
Even if we managed to find a way to mitigate the affects of burning coal in the atmosphere, there would still be the need to mine it. There would still be the problems with what mining coal does to the miners, there would still be the problem of the greed of the coal companies that have shown time and time again over the last 150 years that they will place profit over the safety of the miners.
While no-one in my family is involved in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, but for the iron will of Grandma we might well have been. The people living and working in West Virginia’s coal fields are not a disposable resource. They are our fellow citizens who want the same things we all want, to have a job where they can raise a family, have some reasonable comforts for working hard. What is different about them is that they are slowly being killed by the work, through accidents or through black lung. They are dying so we can pay less for a megawatt of power delivered to or businesses or houses.
The argument about moving to new forms of electrical generation often comes down to cost. We are often told that solar and wind powers are just not cheap enough justify moving our nation to them in a significant way. This argument always excludes the human cost of coal. If we factored in the lives of the miners, the cost of real and consistent safety, then it is likely that the books would be much closer to balanced.
There may come a day when we do not have to live with the news of dead miners; a day when mine towns are not filled with people dragging small canisters of oxygen around behind them to supplement their ruined lungs. Until that day comes there will be people like my Grandpa, underground, working the seams, to assure cheap power to our nation.
The floor is yours.