I sat down to write about the men who were trapped in the West Virginia coal mine, amazed and elated that all but one survived. But no. This morning I find it's just the opposite.

Three hours after the families were told that 12 of the 13 men were alive, they were informed just the opposite: there was only one survivor.

That answers my rhetorical question, can you think of anything worse than having someone you love trapped in a mine? Sure. Being told he's alive, then being told, oops, sorry, did we say alive? We meant dead.

I always pay attention to stories of trapped coal miners, in more than the child-down-the-well kind of way. I've never done a dangerous day's work in my life, and I think of coal mining as among the worst and most dangerous livelihoods in the world.

The work itself is literally backbreaking and joint-wrenching, the conditions are psychologically and physically grueling, and the long-term consequences are your basic shortened life-expectancy by lingering, painful death. The men who do this gruesome work, historically, are little more than human shovels to the people who profit from their labour. And every day they go underground, their families know they may not return. Mining towns collectively recall every accident. Local women can reel off the names of families who've lost fathers or sons.

An excellent film about American coal workers and the battles they fought is "Matewan", written and directed by my favourite filmmaker, John Sayles. Here's the story the film is based on, from the United Mine Workers point of view.

Another work that affected me greatly was George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier. If you haven't read it, read at least the first part, which describes the working conditions of British and Welsh coal miners. It's something I'll never forget. Every time I hear or read about coal miners, I think of Wigan Pier.

(And, since someone will ask me: I haven't seen "Great North" yet, but I will, when it comes up in our Zip queue.)

A few years ago I read a long expose about the coal industry's ties to Dick Cheney. It was a real eye-opener. If you were to list the major industries that control the US government, you might not mention Big Coal. Yet in influence and power, Coal deserves pride of place near the very top.

I wish the article was available online, but it's not. All I find are little snippets mentioning Cheney's connection to all the energy industries: oil, nuclear, coal. But the extent to which the coal industry controls US government policy - and the semi-secret removal of mountaintops in West Virginia, changing that country forever - is rarely told. (Here are some shocking photos of mountaintop removal; this website is a good gateway to lots more information (see the "mountaintop removal" link.)

So. Twelve miners dead. My heart goes out to those families, who were so briefly given hope, only to learn it was the cruel, false variety.

* * * *

I'm a little bleary today, thanks to anniversary fun. It's taken me forever to do this one post. Today we're taking care of two new-resident tasks that are a bit overdue: applying for a credit card from a Canadian bank, and getting Ontario driver's licenses.

While looking up where to go for the licenses, we learned we were supposed to have done this within 60 days of taking residence. Oops. Hopefully there's no penalty for delaying, and if there is, I'd prefer a fine to a new driving test and application.

Hey, check out the Google home page today. Nice touch.


Rognar said...

You might want to read up on the Springhill Mine disaster of 1958. It's quite a story of tragedy (75 men were killed) and survival (19 survived for several days). It wasn't Canada's worst coal mine disaster (that would be Hillcrest, Alberta), but it is certainly the most famous. There's a book on the disaster entitled Last Man Out by Melissa Fay Greene.

Scott M. said...

You're supposed to get Ontario plates within 30 days as well. To do that, you'll also need proof of insurance from an Ontario insurer.

In Ontario, there's a whole bunch of auto insurers and the rates vary wildly from one to the other. I've found that group insurers (if you have them through employment of you or your partner [as long as you're married or common-law]) such as The Personal is the best rate. I've also had success with Certas. Your mileage WILL vary.

There's no "punishment" for registering your plates late (unless you're stopped by police for something and they figure it out, in which case it's a fine and demerit points).

For your license, you need a vision test for sure, and then depending on the state you're in and how much driving experience you have, you'll be placed in the graduated license system. It's unlikely you'll be put anywhere except in the G2 stage, which only has a restriction on 0.00 blood alcohol level. You'll then need to complete a road test.

There's a good chance that you'll just go to "G" (the regular license, post-graduated system) if they think you're experience merits.

There's no defined penalty for not applying within 60 days unless you're stopped by police (in which case it's driving without a license). The trick will be with your insurance company, which may be picky about these things. My best advise is to give them only the answers to the questions they ask and don't offer anything.

In Ontario, it's illegal to drive without insurance. It's also illegal to lie to the insurance companies.

Scott M. said...

On the topic of mine disasters, the worst intentionally caused disaster in Canadian history is the "Giant Mine" explosion. There's lots of literature on it (including a Royal Commission) and news copy for your perusal. As well, the CBC has a docu-drama which is well worth watching.

Amateur said...

Nova Scotia is sort of the West Virginia of Canada in this respect. Second-most famous would be the explosion at Westray. But there weren't any trapped survivors.

laura k said...

You might want to read up on the Springhill Mine disaster of 1958.

I saw an excellent documentary on that some years ago. Brutal.

Re Melissa Fay Greene, I know that author's name but can't think of from where... I'll have to Google it.

laura k said...

You're supposed to get Ontario plates within 30 days as well.

We bought a car shortly after moving here, complete with Ontario insurance and Ontario plates.

And now we also have Ontario licenses.

In Ontario, it's illegal to drive without insurance.

As it is in New York and any other place we've ever lived.

Thanks for the info - we're way ahead of you! :)

allan said...

and then depending on the state you're in ...

damn, going there drunk was not a good idea.

allan said...

Here's some surprising news:

Mine Where Explosion Occurred Was Cited for Hazards

Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Federal authorities issued 21 citations last year for a build-up of combustible materials at the West Virginia mine where 12 men died, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

The Sago mine, owned by billionaire investor Wilbur Ross's International Coal Group Inc., was cited for a total of 208 federal safety violations last year, up from 68 in 2004, according to the Labor Department. The largest individual fine last year was $440; the citations for combustible materials carried fines of $60. ...

Phil Smith, the communications director for the United Mine Workers of America, in Washington, said the fines assessed for safety violations are too small to force large corporations to make improvements.

"We could get pulled over for speeding and pay more than that," said Smith, who said the Sago mine was non-union. "The problem with the current laws is enforcement."


Also: Ben Hatfield, International Coal's chief executive officer, said the company has improved safety conditions since acquiring the mine last year.

"We have no interest of getting into the finger-pointing of who is responsible for what, and what went wrong a year ago. ... much of the bad history that you're talking about was beyond our reach and ability to control."

Hey, you lying sack of shit, the number of violations on your watched rose from 68 to 208. And the mine had 14 injuries last year, almost twice as many as in 2004.

I'll bet your contributions to the Cheney regime increased too.

allan said...

From The Nation, August 2002:

W. and the coal miners
Photo-op cover for anti-worker policies

Before heading to Texas for a month of vacation -- longer than the average worker's -- the President stopped at the local fire station in Green Tree, Pennsylvania, to (very publicly) visit with the nine miners recently rescued from a flooded coal mine. As could be expected, Bush hailed the episode as evidence of "the spirit of America, the great strength of our nation."

He praised the people "who heard the call that one of my neighbors is in trouble," and he thanked the rescuers for "showing our fellow citizens that by serving something greater than yourself is an important part of being an American."

As for the miners, Bush observed, "It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that's prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffer, all of us suffers."

That spirit, though, was not present earlier this year when the Bush administration proposed cutting the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) by $7 million. The administration defended the 6-percent reduction by noting the number of coal mines has been decreasing. Yet coal mining fatalities have gone up for three years in a row. ...

In March, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, maintained the funding cut would cause a 25 percent reduction in the government's mine-safety inspection workforce. As of March, 612 federal mine inspectors were responsible for enforcing safety regulations in 25 states, and there were signs the system has not been functioning well.


That neglect sounds exactly like what happened in New Orleans.

But, hey, as the cable mediots are saying (in providing cover for their corporate masters), coal mining can't be 100% safe, so you're gonna have some accidents. C'est la vie.

Or not.

Nicole said...

Fantastic post. Matewan and Sayles' work are favorites of mine as well.

My stepfather is from West Virginia and he worked in the mines for a while. Didn't sound like a lot of fun.

I feel so terrible for those families.

laura k said...

Thank you, Nicole. Once again I see that whatever's on your mind, you should post - you never know who it will connect with.

And thanks for the info, Redsock. It is ever thus.


Anonymous said...

Just another example of big business getting preferential treatment and your neighbour and mine paying the price for that treatment. If this had been an ordinary citizen fined several dozen times for driving violations, as an example, he'd have gone to jail ages ago. Instead, we have a large corporation, an energy concern no less, repeatedly cited and allowed to continue operating. Now, it and the federal concern which allowed it to continue operating that mine, have directly caused the deaths of these people. The finger-pointing must happen, even if the guy who owns the mine doesn't want it to. He's got the most to lose - and should. Someone must be held accountable and if I can't drag the administration and its related agencies out to the public square in shackles, then the energy company will have to do.


Unknown said...

Laura - it sounds like you got your licenses today.

I was so worried and delayed mine to find out that all I needed was the eye test. However, the license is only good for about 3 years and I know that insurance wise I've had to prove my insurance to prove I've been driving for more than 8 years. But it's different here in BC for that.

James Redekop said...

I came across an article on the accident rate at that mine. I can't remember the exact numbers (expressed in days of work lost per 100,000 man-hours of work total), but this mine's rate was three to four times the national average, and closer to eight times the average for other mines in the area.

laura k said...

Laura - it sounds like you got your licenses today.

Hi Jen - we did. We just waited, answered some questions, took an eye test, and that was it.

I was so worried and delayed mine to find out that all I needed was the eye test.

Good job!

However, the license is only good for about 3 years and I know that insurance wise I've had to prove my insurance to prove I've been driving for more than 8 years.

We were asked about this, too, then they just waved us through. In Ontario the license is good for 5 years. My New York State license was valid for 10 years!