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Miners' safety woes in the spotlight: Two very different accounts of miner experiences

Miner photo by Earl DotterIt’s been a rough week in the news for miners and those who care about their health and safety.

The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby released a jaw-dropping account of the coal industry’s go-to law firm withholding evidence of black lung disease in efforts to deny miners’ workers’ compensation or other health benefits. This was the first story in a three-part series. 

It’s hard for me to select which segments of the story to highlight in this blog post because I don’t want to leave anything out. It is all appalling – but extremely well detailed.

First, let’s look at the prevalence of black lung disease today. “After decades of decline,” Hamby writes, “government surveillance now indicates that more than 6 percent of miners in central Appalachia are afflicted with black lung, which is increasingly affecting younger miners and taking a new, more aggressive form. Researchers suspect this is an undercount.”

We know that underreporting is a huge issue for miners and other workers alike. Further contributing to this toned-down number of black lung cases is the frequency with which the disease is misdiagnosed. (To what extent these are cases of company doctors colluding with employers to deny benefits and to what extent they are simple misdiagnoses is anybody's guess.)

Then, Hamby details other factors threatening miners’ health and safety.

“Today’s roughly 85,000 U.S. coal miners face new dangers posed by an increasingly toxic mixture of dust generated by advanced machines that rapidly chew through coal and rock,” he writes. “For an average wage of about $25 an hour, they risk explosions, rock falls, fires and disease.”

Take a look at Hamby’s entire story to learn of other despicable accounts of industry’s role in withholding critical health and safety information as evidence, denying benefits, and dominance in the legal system.

For instance, Hamby writes:

“The administrative court system, originally meant to benefit miners, has evolved into a byzantine maze of seemingly endless litigation with its own rules and peculiarities that can befuddle even experienced lawyers. Much more than in civil court, the balance of power is tipped in favor of defendants, and cases receive little outside scrutiny.

Fewer than one-third of miners have a lawyer at the initial stage of their cases, Labor Department statistics show. Coal companies and their insurers, however, are almost always represented by lawyers who specialize in black lung claims.”

In another horrifying tale of disrespecting miners, the theme park Kings Dominion, located in Doswell, Va., is in the hot seat for an insensitive mystery maze making light of disasters like the one at Upper Big Branch.

“Alone in the darkness . . . the only sound is the pulsing of your heart as the searing heat slowly boils you alive . . . It was reported to be the worst coal mine accident in history. The families of missing miners begged for help but it was decided that a rescue was too dangerous. The miners were left entombed deep underground.”

So begins the Web pitch for the new “Miner’s Revenge” maze, one of 10 haunted attractions meant to tantalize and terrorize visitors during “Halloween Haunt” at Kings Dominion. 

The advertisement continues: “Lamps at their sides and pick-axes in their hands they are searching for the men who left them to die . . . waiting to exact their revenge.”

In an op-ed written in the Washington Post last week, blogger Peter Galuszka says that he will not be visiting the theme park – despite an offer for a free ticket – because it hits a little close to home. 

Twenty-nine miners died in Upper Big Branch – the worst U.S. coal-mine disaster in 40 years. Three investigations have found that the incident was the result of Massey’s atrocious safety policies.

“To promote the maze, Kings Dominion’s Web site features a garish picture of a badly mutilated half-skeleton. That depiction, unfortunately, is true to reality,” Galuszka writes. “At Upper Big Branch, 10 of the 29 dead were blown apart by the explosion. The rest died of carbon monoxide intoxication.”

“The idea of abandonment is a difficult topic for miners. At Kings Dominion, the suggestion of living miners left to die is meant to inject some enjoyable dramatic tension. At Upper Big Branch, we have the real-life story of Timothy Blake. He told investigators that he was leaving his shift with eight others on a “mantrip,” or small rail car, when the explosion occurred, soon followed by deadly carbon monoxide gas. Blake managed to get his air mask on, but the others struggled. He said he stayed as long as he could but had to leave them when he began to run out of air. The others all suffocated.”

Galuszka says that a Kings Dominion representative denied that the maze was depicting a specific situation (such as the Upper Big Branch tragedy).

“I believe Petriello [the representative] is being sincere, but something else tugs at me,” Galuszka writes. “For far too long, the deaths of coal miners in the United States, although thankfully decreasing in frequency, still seem to be considered an acceptable and inevitable fact of life. So far this year, 18 coal miners have died, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, about on track with last year’s total. Three died over a three-day period during the federal government shutdown, which interfered with inspections and enforcement operations at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Meanwhile, legislation to improve mine safety, introduced in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, languishes in Congress. It has been caught up in industry pushback against the Obama administration’s supposed regulatory “War on Coal.”

So while little is being done about improving the safety of real-life miners, many Americans are being sold on the idea that coal-mine deaths can be a fun Halloween thrill.

Though Kings Dominion announced today that it is dropping the maze from its line-up because of the outcry, we agree with West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin when he said, “It’s just beyond my understanding and comprehension that anybody could stoop that low for the all-mighty dollar; it’s unbelievable.”

*Photo from the Earl Dotter photo collection.

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