Suggestion — October 4, 2013, 2:30 pm

The End of Illth

In search of an economy that won’t kill us

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

On April 5, 2010, a fireball ripped through underground shafts at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killing twenty-nine miners. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States in over forty years. When I heard the news on the radio that morning, my first thought was, “I bet it’s a Massey mine.” And it was. Under the ruthless leadership of CEO Don Blankenship, Massey Energy had unapologetically accumulated one of the worst safety records of any coal company in the country.

Between January 2009 and the day of the explosion, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the Upper Big Branch mine for 639 violations, and in the past decade, fifty-four miners have been killed in Massey mines. Jeff Harris, a former Massey employee who quit to work for a union mine, told a Senate committee three weeks after the explosion that the company routinely chose productivity over safety. “Soon as the inspector would leave the property,” Harris said of Upper Big Branch, “they jerk all the ventilation back down and start mining coal.” Unfortunately, as a Labor Department investigation later revealed, the ventilation system could have played a significant role in preventing the methane buildup that ignited the explosion on April 5.

Testifying before the House Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, surviving miners from Upper Big Branch described repeated ventilation violations that left flammable coal dust collecting on conveyor belts. That was nothing new in a Massey mine. In the fall of 2005, Blankenship sent a memo to employees that read, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” That “whatever” might have included stopping a conveyor belt long enough to remove combustible coal waste — on January 19, 2006, a fire broke out along a belt at a Massey mine in West Virginia, killing two men.

[1] In response to the naming of the Wildcat Coal Lodge, writer Wendell Berry withdrew all of the personal papers he had donated to the university’s special-collections library.

Twenty-four days after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, two more miners were killed, this time in my home state of Kentucky, because a roof collapsed on them 500 feet underground. That occurred at the Dotiki mine, which seemed to follow Blankenship’s premise that installing support beams to stabilize roofs gets in the way of running coal; the mine had been cited for 2,973 violations in the previous five years. (The Dotiki mine was operated by a subsidiary of Alliance Resources, whose chief executive, Joe Craft, had recently brokered a deal with my own employer, the University of Kentucky. Last October, Craft pledged $7 million to build a new dorm for the basketball team if, and only if, UK agreed to name the building the Wildcat Coal Lodge. The dorm opened last year.)[1]

As I pondered all of these violations and deaths, a question formed over and over in my mind: What if the workers themselves had owned those mines? That question led to others. Unionized mines do a better job of maintaining worker safety than nonunion ones; would a worker-owned mine be better still? Would the ventilation curtains have remained in place even after the inspectors left? Would the workers have sent themselves a memo, like Don Blankenship’s, pointing out the importance of profits over their own lives? If the miners themselves had owned the mine, would they still be alive?

[2] I also discovered an outfit far beyond the southern mountains, in Wyoming, called the Kiewit Mining Group, whose website touts its “broad-based employee ownership.” I checked out the safety record of its Buckskin Mine in Campbell County. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Kiewit harvests on average about 15 million tons of coal there each year, and in sixteen years has been cited for only thirty-nine injuries and zero deaths.

I began doing some research to see if any such mines exist among the coalfields of Appalachia, but I could find none. From 1917 to 1927, however, a cooperative mining town called Himlerville did exist in Martin County, Kentucky, across the Tug Fork River from the notorious company towns of “Bloody” Mingo County, West Virginia.[2] The Himler Coal Company was founded by a Hungarian coal miner named Henrich Himler on the premise that the workers would be the stockholders and the stockholders would be the workers. Each year the company’s profits were distributed as dividends, and every miner, no matter his position, shared equally in stock bonuses.

At first Himlerville flourished, with handsome cottages, gardens, and indoor plumbing. It had a library, an auditorium, a school, and a bake shop. Residents didn’t suffer from typhoid, as they did across the river in Mingo County, nor did gun thugs patrol the grounds to intimidate miners and thwart attempts at collective bargaining. By 1922, the Himler Coal Company had raised its capital base from $500,000 to $2 million, and so decided to open two new mines. But then coal prices plunged, and the railroads brought in competition from larger corporations. “In 1927, the company was sold at auction to private capitalists,” writes historian Ronald Eller, “and the only effort at cooperative mining in the southern mountains came to an end.” Today, only Henrich Himler’s dilapidated Victorian home, in what’s now called Beauty, Kentucky, stands as evidence of the experiment.

One can say today about an Appalachian deep mine what Sarah Ogan Gunning sang almost eighty years ago in her anthem “Come All You Coal Miners”:

Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today.
Plenty of dirty slaving work and very little pay.

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

The pay has gotten better, thanks to unions, but the work remains deadly. And Gunning, who had watched children starve to death in coal camps, meant it when she sang the last line: “Let’s sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell.” Of course in today’s America, this sentiment represents the worst kind of heresy: a denial of capitalism’s benevolent hand and the free market’s capacious ability to best know our human needs. It’s socialism, wealth-spreading, devil-worship.

But what if it isn’t? Pause for a moment to consider how this country might look if we did shift wealth away from predatory lenders and speculators, toward real workers who produce real wealth, in the form of goods and services? What if this shift represented a radical and ethical form of democracy — one grounded in trust, decent work, and marketplace morality?

The financial crisis of 2008 had a long gestation period that can be traced back to 1783, when Alexander Hamilton persuaded Continental Army soldiers, desperate for cash, to sell their war bonds to his speculating friends at one-thirtieth of their value. In the earliest days of the republic, Hamilton and financier–politician Robert Morris were making shady deals to funnel American wealth to the banking class of New York. Hamilton wanted to centralize the country’s wealth and power as fervently as his nemesis Thomas Jefferson wanted a decentralized nation of agrarian, self-sufficient wards. But of course we adopted Hamilton’s vision, not Jefferson’s, and as a result the United States now has the largest income gap of any country in the northern hemisphere — one that is now wider than at any point in our country’s history.

In their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett concluded that every societal problem, without exception, can be tied directly to income inequality. The United States has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than almost all other “developed” countries. And we have the worst environmental record in the world. When they died, the twenty-nine West Virginia miners were digging coal that the rest of us consume twice as fast as Americans did in the 1970s. Yet still we leave unquestioned the overarching goal of infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources. The American economist Kenneth Boulding once remarked, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.” But as we listen daily to the president, to members of Congress, and to the financial analysts who sail by on cable news, the dominant message is that endless economic growth is this country’s singular destiny.

In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote, “Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Exactly. We are indeed Hamilton’s heirs, and to repudiate his legacy will mean repudiating what modern capitalism has brought us: toxic loans, toxic securities, toxic energy sources, and toxic growth.

But what if we replaced our Hamiltonian economy with a Jeffersonian one? Or, put in other terms, what if we took as our model not an economy of unchecked growth, but one based on the natural laws of the watershed? By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste, and doesn’t “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable. The watershed purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. It represents both a metaphor and a model for an entirely new definition of economy, whereby our American system of exchange in the realms of wealth and energy is brought into line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.

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is the author of, most recently, The Embattled Wilderness, and the editor of The Guy Davenport Reader. He lives in Nonesuch, Kentucky.

More from Erik Reece:

From the December 2005 issue

Jesus without the miracles

Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and the Gospel of Thomas

From the April 2005 issue

Death of a mountain

Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia

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