“Where the danger is double and pleasures are few”

The news that the Massey coal mine in West Virginia– where an explosion killed at least 25 miners Monday– had been cited by federal inspectors more than 1,300 times for safety violations since 2005 (most recently including ventilation problems) sadly comes as no surprise. Nor does the fact that it is a non-union mine and therefore workers have no power to negotiate on health and safety issues.

That record “is a sign that they are not fixing their safety problems,” said Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It is not unusual for a mine to receive a substantial number of citations, she said, but the recent violations involving the mine’s ventilation system “are a red flag. It’s a signal that something is not right there, something is going wrong at that mine.”

One former senior federal mine safety regulator said Tuesday that the MSHA should have closed down the mine after so many citations. “The regulators have failed to do their job,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating his consulting work.

Of course even under the best of conditions, coal mining is a terribly grueling and dangerous job. But in places like rural West Virginia, it’s one of the few jobs on which it is possible to support a family.

Anyone who has read Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier can’t forget his account of visiting a coal face in the north of England. Or this passage:

For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants–- all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

As for the sneering reference to “Nancy poets”– Orwell was a man of his time, in the worst and best sense of the phrase. I’m sure it never occurred to him that there were some “Nancy” miners too.

Disasters like these have a special resonance for me since I learned a few years ago that my grandfather was a North Dakota homesteader who spent winters mining lignite coal in the early part of the last century.