Blasted in a West Virginia Mine: First by Explosion, Then by Lies

When hundreds of miners are trapped in pitch black waters 5 kilometers below the surface in China — the U.S. media has a tsk-tsk tone that suggests how little human life is valued “in the Orient,” and that (subliminally) reminds the viewers that this cheapness of life and labor in China has sucked the manufacturing out of the United States.

And it is said (over and over) that “if only” the Chinese had regulation and inspection (read: like the U.S.) then this would be averted.

Then comes the devastating mine blast at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. At least 25 dead. An ignition of methane gas and coal dust sent a shock wave sweeping through the tunnels with a force that wrenched railroad rails from the ground and left them twisted in its wake. Mere human beings were simply incinerated or shattered. And then the tunnels were left silent and dark, filled with smoke and the deadly carbon monoxide that follows explosions like this. After the counting was done, four men were still missing. And outside, the families of the grieving and those worried sick.

Few human activities are as regulated as mining in the U.S. The books of law and procedure are massive. After many thousands of deaths and injuries, after waves of technological invention — it is well known how to avoid disaster. The methane, even in a gassy mine, can be blown out of the workings by directed air flow. Sparks can be denied explosive materials. Coal dust can be sprinkled with water (as it flies in the air), and removed (when it falls to the ground).

And yet, there it is: at least 25 dead in a deadly and horrifying blast.

Theater and Lies

Once again the officials will call for new regulations. Governors, senators, and mine officials will step before the cameras with solemn faces and embrace the newly-made widows. Some laws will pass. Miners will be required to attend lectures. And so on, and so on… The system will display concern and paper reform.

I watched Homer Hickam, Jr., author of Rocket Boys, appear on  CNN as a mining expert, and heard him explain to the world that “every miner has the power to shut down the mine, at any time, without fear for his job.” Sure they do, you liar and fool.

The simple fact is that Massey’s Upper Big Branch (like in the flooded Wangjialing coal mine) is governed by capitalism. And the rules and laws will be ignored over and over again. Those who report violations will be targeted and often fired. (I’ve been there personally, including for refusing to keep silent about an unreported gas explosion that licked us with flames.)

The routine of everyday life will (loosely, loosely) conform to a minimum of safety — but it will always break down under pressure of production.

The simple rule of capitalism is that, ultimately, human social production is privately owned. Society is shattered into competing centers of profit. And that competition (especially in raw material like coal) is not about packaging, or advertising, or unique features but cheapness and efficiency of production. The drive for production is refracted through a thousand decisions at a dozen levels — from the board rooms to the working mine face. And the daily result is crippled workers, exhausted bodies, diseased lungs and then in shocking moments that long line of blackened bodies lifted from below, passing by their heart-sick and angry families.

And that story — of capitalism’s role in this — will simply be suppressed or denied, as the media (once again) focuses on the religious faith of mining communities (made quaint by urbane TV anchors) and the practiced outrage of indifferent officials (who are wholly owned by energy monopolies).

Here is an example of media suppression:

I have (as you can imagine) watched the coverage of Upper Big Branch. I was heartened as over a hundred miners were lifted half-dead from Wangjialing. I watched endless discussion of Massey’s safety violations.

But if you had sat alongside me following those news report, you would not have known what every single miner in southern West Virginia knows:

Massey was the national flagship of union breaking.

Until the 1980s, southern West Virginia was the heartland of the United Mine Workers. It was unthinkable that a non-union mine could operate there (as they did in the fringes of the coalfields, in Harlan county Kentucky or in the far West). But as the combination of government, police, strip mining and exhaustion broke the miners’ movement of the 1970, Massey dared to open a mining complex in Raleigh County, in the heart of the UMWA’s stronghold.

When I passed through there (as a journalist in the 1980s) I literally could not believe that just outside of Beckley there was a massive non-union operation. There were waves of strikes there over this outrage. I visited the pickets who kept vigil at those Massey mine entrances. I heard how Massey was hiring as other mines closed, and how they (craftily, craftily) paid some above union scale…. And I saw the worry and anger in the eyes of union men and women who understood too clearly what it would mean for their region, for themselves, for the future dead, if this were allowed, and if their generations of struggle were reversed.

There are (of course) also disasters in union mines. There were three dead carried out of the Keystone mine where I worked in the 1970s. There are violations daily, and dangers constantly. But it has to be said that the rise of non-union conditions is part of the transformations that have touched everyone — and worsened conditions generally.

But more to the point: Look at the news coverage. Think about what it took to avoid reporting this simple history of Massey’s militant anti-unionism. Think of how many people told each news reporter that Massey was hated as a spearhead of de-unionization. Think of how decisions had to be made in the news organizations NOT to feature that fact, or draw the simple conclusions.

The news media repeatedly described how working people in this area have nowhere else to go but underground — but who describes how that captivity has been reinforced and exploited (for generations!) by those ice-cold masters of finance?

Conditions in the mines are caused by capitalism.

Even the de-unionization is tied to that famous free  mobility of capital (that freedom which shifts investment from  militant costly underground mines and into the “problem free” obscenity of strip mines).

Capitalism is at fault in China and it is at fault Upper Big Branch.

And more horrors and disasters of capitalism are happening a stone’s throw from wherever you sit, reading these words. And where you sit, wherever that is, there are blinding truths and profound interconnections that are actively suppressed and denied — all so that the profitable death and routine discarding of human beings seems normal and permanent.

When working people are trapped and killed underground, I often cannot sleep. I often can’t even find my way to this keyboard until the initial emotions have quieted, and those first tears are dried.

But I want to say something simple and perhaps obvious (in the wake of Upper Big Branch and Wangjialing — and in the wake of drone murders in Afghanistan, and police murders on countless streets of America):

We must raise our voices more forcefully and skillfully to expose the workings and nature of this capitalist system, we must find the ways (together!) to break through the cunning white noise of the media machinery, and to honor our dead  while defiantly indicting their killers.

Mike Ely is part of the Kasama Project and has helped create the new Revolution in South Asia resource. Mike’s email is Read other articles by Mike, or visit Mike's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on April 8th, 2010 at 9:38am #

    I do not think that capitalism 1, that of US, is capitalism 2 of china. Capitalism 1 had slain mns of indigenes, nuked japan, waged some 18o major and minor wars; denies its people right to be informed-educated, or receive medical treatment.
    Of course, if energy in china is also used for electric tooth brushes, knives, openers; in buty salons, gambling casinos, golf courses and the like then chinese gov’t shld be criticised for it.
    However, i don’t know anything ab chinese use or abuse of natural wealth; includes mining.

    Mike ely also avoids to talk ab the system under which also union breaking and rules of of mining are violated. And it is the system now in use for the last 10 k yrs, that causes all the ills that befall us on interpersonal and internat’l levels.

    So, dwelling on symptoms or watrs only cannot ever change anything for better; actually, expect worsenings!
    Just note please america today [in mind] is the same as sumer 6kyrs ago or tsarist russia in 1600’s!

  2. Don Hawkins said on April 9th, 2010 at 3:30am #

    Did anybody happen to see this “When The Earth Stops Spinning”. Well done and the last thing said on this program was of course this will never happen but does show just how delicate the balance of nature. What was the temperature in New York City a few day’s ago? Was that the first stages of climate change no heck that’s just myth a hoax. How about this that most people here in the States never hear about.

    BEIJING – The severe drought in southwest China had persisted, worsening the shortage of drinking water, as recent rainfalls in these areas were far from being adequate, China’s drought relief authorities said Thursday.

    The drought situation remained “grave,” the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters said in a

    statement on its Web site.
    As of Thursday, drought had affected 25.95 million people and 18.44 million livestock, as well as 121 million Mu (about 8.07 million hectares) of arable land nationwide, said the statement.

    Massey got a fine of about $168,000 and they make that back in less than an hour. Now just on the off chance this is not a hoax 91 degrees in the first part of April and let me say most of you know it’s not a hoax is there a better way? Yes there sure is but first we must imagine it is up to us, imagine that. How about that message yes get that message out it’s up to us and please don’t end it with call call now or drill baby drill or up’s and down’s all around the town some new ideas can we start today. We can’t wait don’t tell me vision. It appears so far stuck on stupid is the vision and maybe high school level thinking Massey, Massey, Massey remember James Hansen and was that not what we heard. You would think there could just be a better way but that’s right requires imagination, knowledge the real thing and working together and did anybody see that video of Blankenship and the ABC reporter well I meet people like Blankenship ever now and then and sort of say cup of coffee nice game of checkers hay how about those Yankees. What a vision.

  3. Don Hawkins said on April 9th, 2010 at 6:30am #

    By Richard Brunt, Times ColonistApril 9, 2010 12:08 AM

    Re: “Don’t blame PR for climate skepticism,” letter, April 8.

    The letter demonstrated how powerful the anti-global-warming PR machine really is. The writer repeated the widely circulated accusations about climate change scientist Phil Jones producing misleading research.

    Yet on the same page of the Times Colonist online edition is an article explaining that Jones’s work has been reviewed by a parliamentary inquiry in the United Kingdom, and he has been completely exonerated.

    The climate change deniers prefer obfuscation to the truth. Lies are repeated endlessly, because PR gurus know that if you repeat something often enough, people will eventually believe it.

    When one examines the global warming “debate,” you see on one side there is every credible university climate department, along with virtually every climate scientist on the planet. On the other, you have a tiny handful of dissenters, most with clear ties to the oil and gas industry. And most of those are not even climate scientists.

    Clearly, there is no debate on climate change. Only the illusion of debate created by corporate misinformation campaigns and a strangely complicit media.

    One thing is certain — global warming threatens life on Earth as we know it. It is terribly sad that corporations would spin a web of lies and deceit just to preserve their bottom line. It is even sadder that legions of Canadians believe them.

    Richard Brunt


    because PR gurus know that if you repeat something often enough, people will eventually believe it coal is going to send us all down the drain in not such slow motion. In the States the coal miners start there first new energy job’s above ground job’s in the light so to speak.

  4. Don Hawkins said on April 12th, 2010 at 11:30am #

    Watch the video this is unbelievable.

  5. Don Hawkins said on April 12th, 2010 at 12:01pm #

    Those comments on above web page the question how long will we remember as for me right in there face.

  6. Don Hawkins said on April 12th, 2010 at 12:16pm #

    Here’s one comment from the article

    He will get away with it. Families and friends will light a candle, some politician will declare a “moment of silence”…people will talk about what a tragedy this is, and then NOTHING WILL HAPPEN. This has been repeated, time and time again. The workers and families of that mine should be after Blankenship’s head on a platter.
    Otherwise, he will pay whatever fines, and next year, there will be another 24 workers killed.
    This man will never be punished for this. Watch.
    Watch people start to take HIS side.

    Next is climate change and we are talking about 6 billion plus people the human race and like Blankenship some smile a little more but the same people and so far what will happen NOTHING WILL HAPPEN. Calm at peace the truth the knowledge there worst enemy. How is the question there must be away.