The View From the Couch: 16 Tons and What Do You Get? Twenty Nine Dead


Two things, light years apart: The first is the "disaster"

in the West Virginia coal mine.This was a disaster as avoidable as the iceberg that sliced open the

Titanic.It is really depressing

to see the coverage of this sort of event.It is more or less the crocodiles shedding fake tears,

insofar as all the large reptiles who are supposed to look out for workers and

worker safety have turned their tails and chomped on whatever easy pickins

thrown their way by energy lobbyists, etc.

It's a national disgrace and harkens back to the era when it

was common knowledge that if you build a bridge (say, the Brooklyn Bridge)

you're going to lose a dozen men or so; same with building skyscrapers, other

dangerous forms of construction and manual labor.

The guy who runs Massey Energy Coal, Don Blankenship, is a

creature that even Edward G. Robinson, a master of evil characters, would have

had a hard time making as villainous as Blankenship appears.Blankenship is the man who bought

himself a judge in order to get a judgment reversed. That case was so egregious

it resulted in a Supreme Court decision. But the business-friendly Roberts

Court barely slapped the parties' wrists, saying it would be best for judges to

recuse themselves from cases where their campaigns have been bankrolled by


Blankenship, in his defense, said that the trouble is that

politicians, i.e., judges, don't stay bought, once bought.His claim to fame around West Virginia

is that he's a "straight talker."So 29 miners have to die in order for anyone to notice that miners have

more or less been abandoned by one and all.

Unlike most people who write about this particular disaster,

I've been down in a West Virginia coal mine.Of course, it was a union mine, not the death trap sort of

the 19th century outfit Blankenship was running near Comfort, West Virginia,

papered over with endless feckless safety violations.I worked construction and did manual labor jobs in my

twenties, but most of that didn't hold a candle to what actual coal miners did

it was made abundantly clear that day in the mine, riding in a "mantrip," a

contraption as ugly as its name, utilitarian at best, hauling its human cargo

practically prostrate to get through the low tunnels.At the seam a shearer (something out of the Terminator

movies) gnaws coal at the long wall.A veritable storm of coal dust. Its particular operator that day had a

mound of chew in his cheek as big as a tennis ball, and that is no exaggeration.Our small group had a safety lecture

before going down, and when the lamp which was lit to detect methane flickered

out, and I mentioned that fact, the miner-guide just slapped it and said it

happened all the time.I still

have a roofing bolt that helps hold the ceiling together as a keepsake.The ceiling, of course, is also

coal.And in the beam of light

attached to my hard hat you could see the fossilized imprint of leaves. Clawed

coal shines. The miners have ancient garlands draped over their heads.

Union mines have safety officers, but, unlike the much

better British coal mines, they are not in a separate union, so they too have

conflicts of interest vis-a-vis production.British coal mines may be safer, but the coal mining

industry there, crushed by Margaret Thatcher in the '80s, is now a dwarf

compared to its former super nova self.

Like all American unions, the coal mining union has lost

clout over the years.Union

national leaders haven't been able to stem the tide of privatization of all

their industries.The former head

of the coal miners, Rich Trumka, now president of the AFL-CIO, knows a lot

about giving and taking money for influence.None of these actors are lily white.Corruption is darker than coal

dust.I wish it were so, as Don

Blankenship contends, that politicians don't stay bought.

And as far from a West Virginia coal mine as you can get,

the town of South Hadley, Massachusetts, there's been only one death, not 29,

but this death, too, has gotten a lot of coverage.The suicide of a young Irish girl brought on, it's

contended, by the mean girls of South Hadley High.One curious thing that hasn't been mentioned in any of the

coverage I've seen, or read, is the fact that South Hadley, hitherto in recent

history, is famous for one thing: Its well-known women's college, one of the

Seven Sisters, Mount Holyoke.The

absence of that fact may be the town/gown problem, but, since I once taught at

Mount Holyoke, I do think the subject of how young women act in school situations

would be something that students and administrators might try to influence

outside their gates.But, like

government officials, when it comes to public calamities, most everyone in

positions of authority and power prefers not to.


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