Tuesday, January 03, 2006

For the Life of Miners

Yesterday morning, after a Fire Boss for International Coal Group declared Sago mine in Tallmansville, WV safe to fire up after idling for two days. When the men went in not more than 45 minutes later, an explosion occurred, trapping 13 minors on their first day of work in 2006. They are still buried some 260 feet underground, with lessening hope of coming out alive.

How in this day and age, with so much technology, so much evidence that other sources of energy are safer, cleaner, and less expensive, so much knowledge of the danger of underground coal mining, can an industry still be so critical? I know it is a mixed bag, a source of pride and anguish for families who have mind for generations.

When I was growing up in eastern Ohio, the area was heavily strip mined by a handful of companies. Unlike deep mining, strip mining literally is done with blasts to remove layer upon layer of earth, revealing the layers of coal. My sister and I watched from our childhood home as the underbelly of a field we once played in, and a small forest kingdom we called our own, were all razed and raided for what seemed altogether like a bucket of coal. What is left is a trail of environmental destruction that destabilizes the soil and leaves surrounding communities at risk for hazards such as flooding. And, it's ugly. What used to be "Almost Heaven" is now almost nothing but an arid, barren, grey wasteland.

I don't have a position on this. Both methods of mining are hazardous and by today's scientific standards, should be unnecessary. But there are jobs to be kept so mouths can be fed, communities sustained. Apparently the government is too lazy to retrain miners for safer, growth-oriented jobs in regions currently dominated by mining. Besides, what would there be to say to each other if miners and their families were to sit down to dinner each night without worrying who's number is up next?

There are many mining songs but the Dream of the Miner's Child is one of the most poignant. Where I grew up, children were seen and not heard, and I suspect in the places where mining is still the main economic driver, that's likely still the case. Maybe that's why this song made such an impact when it was first recorded on Victor records in the late 1920s. The song is considered to have originated in England as a parlor ballad.

The sound clip features the legendary and much loved Doc Watson.


A miner was leaving his home for his work
When he heard his little child scream.
He went to the side of the little girl's bed;
She said, "Daddy, I've had such a dream!"

"Please, daddy, don't go to the mines today,
For dreams have so often come true.
My daddy, my daddy, please don't go away,
For I never could live without you."

Then smiling and stroking the little girl's face,
He was turning away from her side.
But she threw her small arms around daddy's neck;
She gave him a kiss and then cried:

"Oh, I dreamed that the mines were all flaming with fire,
And the men all fought for their lives.
Just then the scene changed, and the mouth of the mines
Was covered with sweethearts and wives."

"Oh, daddy, don't go to the mines today,
For dreams have so often come true.
My daddy, my daddy, please don't go away,
For I never could live without you."

"Go down to the village and tell your dear friends
That as sure as the bright stars do shine,
There is something that's going to happen today;
Please, daddy, don't go to the mines."

"Oh, daddy, don't work in the mines today,
For dreams have so often come true.
My daddy, my daddy, please don't go away,
For I never could live without you."

My heart hopes against hope for the miners in that mine, and for their sweethearts and wives and children. Credit for the photos goes to Dolores Riggs Davis (check out her website for incredible stories of WV and mining) and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.


At January 03, 2006 10:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know your Bluegrass but not your Coal.
You cant replace coal.
It's also used as a basic energy source in many industries, including, steel, cement and paper. The four major uses of coal are:

Coal is used to generate more than half of all electricity produced in the United States. Besides electric utility companies, industries and businesses with their own power plants use coal to generate electricity. Power plants burn coal to make steam. The steam turns turbines which generate electricity.

A variety of industries use coal's heat and by-products. Separated ingredients of coal (such as methanol and ethylene) are used in making plastics, tar, synthetic fibers, fertilizers, and medicines. The concrete and paper industries also burn large amounts of coal. Industrial consumers use over 7 percent of the coal mined in the United States.

Coal is baked in hot furnaces to make coke, which is used to smelt iron ore into iron needed for making steel. It is the very high temperatures created from the use of coke that gives steel the strength and flexibility for products such as bridges, buildings, and automobiles.

At January 03, 2006 4:37 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Thanks, Anon. I appreciate the extra information for our readers. It just seems to me that by 2006 there would be a less dangerous, less environmentally destructive way to extract it from the earth than sending men so many miles underground never to come out, or blowing the tops of mountains off. I just can't shake the feeling that we're in the dark ages, here. And as for the end users of coal, I doubt that Ross or Merck or Wheeling Pitt or Georgia Pacific or FirstEnergy are lining up to step forward with money or support services for the families of the 13 men who may be lost in this terrible industrial accident.

I understand that the Sago mine produces 800,000 tons of coal annually. I also understand that it carried more than 200 violations as of yesterday morning when those men showed up for work. The idea that an American enterprise like ICG would let men into that mine despite these known hazards seems extraordinary, archaic, willfully careless. And, while coal has not been entirely eclipsed as an energy source, it's not for lack of technology or alternatives but the reluctance to develop and employ them.

At January 03, 2006 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The carried 46 violations as of Dec 22.
This is not many and none of them were the kind that shuts the mine down.

All of this is public info. If a mine is viewed as unsafe, MSHA shuts it down. Coal mining is not even in the 10 most danerous jobs anymore. Truck driving is. So those rigs carring bands equipment are in more danger than a miner.
You have the right to say what you think. Please dont condemn things you dont understand. The bottom line is we NEED coal and we need coal miners.

At January 03, 2006 8:12 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Anonymous, I'm glad you're visiting. I hope you're as much a fan of bluegrass as of coal.

The last report I heard was that the 46 violations you speak of were all for December, and that the present managing company was not taking responsibility for any previous citations, which numbered 208 in 2005.

Make no mistake, Anon. I certainly never said we don't need miners; I know 13 at the moment who are badly needed by their families and friends. I grew up around coal and coal miners and played in my strip-mined back yard where today sits my brother's home (and does he get a heck of a lot of water in his basement!). The home I grew up was heated by coal delivered in big trucks that drove around to the back of our old Quaker farmhouse and dumped loads of it into a coal cellar. Dads and uncles of about half the kids I played with were miners; I remember the strikes very well. My family was built on a small welding supply business in the Ohio Valley that could not have survived without the steel and coal industries (miners need oxygen and other gases for their work as you well know). I have deep respect for miners who gave us that coal, and deep love for the country it came from.

But I'm also pretty sure that this whole thing could be done differently, more safely, with an eye to the future. As much as I will allow that coal is still a vital resource, I simply can't get my head around the fact that in 2006, with enough technology to take pictures of the landscape on Mars and take 3-D pictures of unborn babies, we can't find a better way to get coal out of the ground than sending a carload of men 300 feet underground to dig it up and send it back out in buckets before they get blown up. I'm afraid future historians are going to look back and think, "What the...?!"

Someday, the children of those miners will need jobs. Some will follow the souls of their forebears into the mines. Some will want to choose differently. What will their options be?

I hope that you'll continue to visit and also share some of your own stories about this and other topics, Anon. It's refreshing to be hearing from folks in the part of the country so rich in the reason I started this blog in the first place.


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