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Isn't it time someone stuck up for the miners?

April 10, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

In West Virginia coal country, the word "Massey" is a bit like the word "Sheetz" is in the Tri-State area.

It's all around, even when not in sight, and the mere mention of it conveys much more information and understanding than six-letter words usually do.

Of course, a coal company is nothing like a convenience store. Remove Massey from the hollows and the local economy would collapse. With Sheetz, it only seems like it would.

And Massey's relationship with the people, the government and mountain society in general is far more complex than a doughnut and a cup of coffee.

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As outsiders, the mining disaster at Montcoal has everything we need to get the blood boiling - an easily unlikable man at the top who threatens to shoot TV cameramen and appears to prefer profits to safety; an avalanche of safety violations that were ignored or appealed; and a corporation with a stranglehold over the local population, many of whom are scared to say anything bad about the company on the record for fear of retaliation.

Isn't it time someone stuck up for the miners? Forget the hundreds of mining disasters in our past - certainly this will be the one to grab public attention, put teeth into mining regulations and perhaps even land a few people in prison, no?

As my old political science professor at WVU would say, don't bet the house and lot.

It would be logical to think that the miners themselves would lead the charge for reform, but the truth is if push came to shove, miners and their families would line up as the mines' most staunch defenders.

Thirty years ago in Morgantown, a coal miner would come into the bar where I worked most every night and nurse two or three Michelobs before heading off to his job on the midnight shift at the mines. He handled some major piece of equipment underground, which, as I understood it, made his status something akin to the high school quarterback in the mining community.

He drove a big, red Buick Riviera, but he wasn't revered for his money. He was treated with deference at the bar because of his position in the mines. People hung on every word he said when he favored them with his attention. And he carried himself in that bar with as much pride and dignity as a high court justice.

In Appalachia, the mines are not just a job, they're an identity. Oh, and if you want to fight? Just tell them they don't know any better than to be loyal because they are "poor, ignorant miners." Truth is, we're all the same. We might gripe about our jobs, but don't tell us we're part of some evil empire.

And don't tell the West Virginia Legislature either because it might spout and howl and posture about these terrible mining conditions, but it's not doing squat. Forget the lavish spreads and campaign contributions of Big Coal. Consider that coal-related payroll in West Virginia alone is $2 billion, and coal represents $3.5 billion of the annual gross state product.

Then there are the taxes. Coal and coal-fired utility plants account for nearly two-thirds of the state's business taxes. Even noncoal-producing counties have a financial interest from the coal severance tax (more than $200 million per year), which is divided among all 55 counties.

Environmentally, coal already is on shaky ground. It's difficult to see how the West Virginia Legislature will want to interfere in mining operations and pose further jeopardy to the state's economic backbone.

So perhaps the federal government will step in - that is, unless it realizes its help isn't always appreciated. In 1980, West Virginia was one of four states that went for Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan. It was that dependably Democratic.

Mountaintop removal - an ugly form of coal mining - changed that. The Democrats assumed that West Virginians would prefer to save the beauty of the state rather than bow to the superiority of coal. Barack Obama lost West Virginia in 2008 by 13 points.

With every mining disaster, we say that, this time, things will be different, that coal corporations no longer will be allowed to run roughshod over the people and the law. If things are different in the Montcoal aftermath, we truly will be able to say that there's a first time for everything.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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