George Orwell was humbled by coal miners – brave and earnest individuals who work hard hours, often in cramped, damp, lamp-lit corners far below the surface of the Earth. He was shocked by the living and working conditions he witnessed while he boarded in the coal mining communities of Northern England, accompanying the miners underground to see, first-hand, the hot, horrible conditions under which they labored.
‘‘Down there,’’ he wrote, ‘‘where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about….It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins.’’
Even now, in an age of Twitter and reality TV, when every aspect of life can be beamed around the world in an instant, it is too easy to forget about the miner and his daily digging chores, sequestered far from our view, though intimately connected to so many of our daily needs and desires.
Yet, from time to time, something happens to remind us of that separate world. Unfortunately, that something is, too often, a tragedy, like the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, on April 5, 2010, that took the lives, far too soon, of 29 hardworking men.
In the hours following that explosion, reporters from around the Nation flocked to the mine site, nestled in a rural mountain fold not far from my home. Every phase of the attempted rescue effort was captured and broadcast around the globe, and for many tense and worrisome hours, coal miners were very much on the minds of the world, holding its collective breath and hoping for a miracle – a miracle that was not to be.
Now, after the passing of many months, it is clear that the loss of those 29 miners was not due to one unpreventable, fateful incident, but, instead, it was the result of a pervasive, long-running, callous corporate culture that put production and profit far above people. Three investigations to date, including the MSHA investigation recently finalized, have all painfully reaffirmed the need for strong mine safety laws and a federal agency that has the resources and personnel necessary to enforce those laws.
The 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the strongest worker health and safety law in the history of the world, gives mine health and safety inspectors powerful tools to rein in the worst actors. But, as we saw at Upper Big Branch, the law can be flouted, if an operation is so callous and devious as to disregard the safety of its own miners and act to deceive mine safety inspectors.
In many instances under current law, the fines that result from safety violations amount to little more than a slap on the wrist and corporate operators are able to shrug them off as simply “the cost of doing business.” They are not threatened by criminal prosecution. Even decency and moral sense cannot curb the recalcitrant behavior of a few bad actors.
The Congress has a responsibility to the families and the memories of every miner who has perished, as well as those still working in the mines, to constantly review the laws that are supposed to keep those miners alive and healthy. It would be unforgiveable for the Congress not to act in response to the investigative reports that have shown a reckless disregard for the lives of these American miners. I cannot fathom how any Congress could fail to derive some lesson, some legislative reform from a tragedy that killed 29 miners and highlighted failures to abide by the most basic health and safety tenants in the coal mining industry.
That is why I have been pressing for mine safety reforms that shamefully and frustratingly have been blocked in the Congress. In that sense, coal miners today share a common grievance with their predecessors in the early years of the industry. Generations of coal miners have known struggle and loss, suffering and endurance.
It is no coincidence that the Mine Safety and Health Administration released its final report on the UBB disaster on December 6 – the anniversary of the 1907 Monongah Mine disaster, the worst mining disaster in American history and the Congressionally designated “National Miner’s Day.”
I am proud to have been the author of the House Resolution that sought to establish that date as a milestone of national recognition and remembrance of America’s miners. It is a shameful truth that each advance in our Nation’s mine safety system has come only after a mine disaster. But I hope that Miner’s Day might alter that tradition and serve to bring the miner out from the dark of the mines into the national light for at least one day each year. It seems to me far preferable that our national conscience be kindled not by tragedy, but, instead, by celebration.
Nothing can bring back our fallen miners or repair the hole that the loss of those 29 men at UBB left in the hearts of their families and their communities. But we can try to ensure that their legacy is one that results in protecting their brothers still in the mines. Preventing another UBB will take a multi-pronged effort and the support of miners and their families, mining companies, mine safety agencies, the States, and the Congress, and I, for one, am committed to that effort.
And, in the future, on each National Miner’s Day to come, I urge the Congress and all Americans to turn our attention to recognizing the contributions that miners have made to our Nation – its economic vitality and its military strength. And I hope that we will take that annual opportunity to help ensure that miners are assured of safe, healthy, humane conditions in which to earn an honest living. America and American miners deserve no less.