Who's to Blame for the Continuing Tragedy in Coal Country?

By Allen Johnson 4-15-2010

The heart-chilling news flashed through West Virginia's Coal River valley, a darkening pall on the blue sky afternoon of April 5, 2010, one day after Easter's hope-filled celebration of resurrection triumphing over death.

An explosion had ripped through Upper Big Branch Mine. "Seven miners dead, at least nineteen missing," said the first reports, soon updated to "Twenty-five dead, four missing." During following days a grief-stunned community prayed, grasping for hope for the four missing miners as rescuers frantically attempted to penetrate into the methane-charged mine. When five ambulances pulled up to the mine entrance shortly after midnight on Saturday morning and turned off their engines, the people keeping vigil knew the worst.

The valley of the shadow of death. So describes an Appalachian coal community. Sudden death such as the recent mine explosion; slow death through black lung respiratory disease. Everyone, so it seems, has a personal connection to tragedy...an uncle killed by a roof fall; a brother electrocuted; a father dying too young of black lung; disability from a crushed leg, mangled hand, fractured back.

Pressed under the vagaries of hovering calamity, successive generations become hardwired into a fatalistic outlook. When misfortune arises, "We'll get by." Close knit families, fast friends, and the soothing comfort of familiar home surroundings are security. Live for now, for one another, for the joy of today; tomorrow might not dawn.

Even after 120 years of extensive coal mining, the Coal River Valley still produces vast tonnage. It's the West Virginia government's cash tax cow. Yet statistically the area ranks badly in life quality indices such as poverty, health, education, and environmental quality. There is no economic diversity and limited community infrastructure. The biggest export is not coal but that of talented young people who out-migrate. King Coal rules the state. "Pharaoh, Let my people go."

Luke 13:4 records Jesus discussing a local news item. "Eighteen were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Do you think they were worse sinners than others living in Jerusalem? No. But unless you repent you will perish as well."

I ponder for a moment whether legal action was taken against those who built the tower of Siloam? Did the construction company cut corners to save costs? Were the building inspectors bought off?

Massey Energy Company owns the coal mine where the recent fatal disaster occurred. A furious frenzy of recriminations is lodging against Massey for its expansive history of safety and environmental violations and highlighting toothless regulatory agencies.

Hang Massey out to dry, and justice is served. "Really?" seems to speak Jesus. Massey is owned by stockholders who seek a profit. They profit from their customers. Massey customers buy steel made with metallurgical coal (as in the case of the exploded Upper Big Branch coal) and buy electricity generated from coal mined in underground and mountaintop removal operations. Those customers are you and me. I pull my light switch, and a drop of miner's blood stains that switch.

Yes, let's advocate for justice. Yes, let's live simply with a low energy footprint. Yes, let's press for renewable energy. Nevertheless this does not absolve our own complicity in the sins of this world. We need God's healing grace for ourselves. And then may God's empowering grace radiate out through us truth, compassion, mercy, and justice, so that hope is birthed afresh and life springs forth renewed and vibrant.

Allen Johnson is co-founder of Christians for the Mountains, an advocacy group that organizes Christians to protect the environment.

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