I started writing a post in response to the disaster at Upper Big Branch Mine a few times while the events of the tragedy were unfolding. Each time I stopped because I didn’t really know what to say. I could link to a few news articles, maybe quote a couple of people that could offer real insight into the situation, post pictures, but something stopped me.
It’s been 6 weeks since an underground explosion at Upper Big Branch mine sparked a storm of controversy surrounding the coal industry, the effectiveness of state and federal environmental and industrial regulation, and workers’ safety, all in the context of a broadening dialog surrounding the effects of climate change. And of course, 29 miners lost their lives.
It wasn’t long before that conversation was pushed to the back pages of newspapers and news websites. Quickly, the editorials stopped coming in, the disaster being mentioned as mere digressions in larger debates. The BP Oil Spill is the current topical narrative that the public conversation is being framed around. But coal disasters keep happening. Within the last two weeks, three major coal mining disasters have happened. In Russia, at least 90 people were killed, in China 14 are dead, and in Turkey, 32 miners are trapped underground after an explosion yesterday.
A grim state of affairs to say the least, but the fickle nature of news media and public interest are telling once again. Soon after something urgent happens, such as the Big Branch disaster, a wake up reminder to some of the dangers of coal country, other news events quickly outpace any progress that is made from the spotlight. Last week’s news talk was about how heavy the hand of the oil industry is when it comes to new regulatory practices, only to systematically ignore them in the future. It’s speculated that this type of paradigm is partially responsible for disasters like the current one in the Gulf. This systematic problem is exactly the same in Appalachian coal fields. Employees and citizens know the dangers of the job and accept the reality as permanent, when stronger federal enforcement and a real progress towards renewable energy sources could quickly change the industry. Recent news narratives in the wake of the Upper Big Branch tragedy picked up on this, quoting miners and coal field residents that effectively translated their experience as feeling helpless in the belly of the beast.
In the face of such a bleak outlook, it’s important to keep things in perspective. And that perspective wholly suggests that the coal industry is on the demise. As public support outside of Appalachia weakens, as new, cleaner technologies become not only more accessible but more economically sustainable, and on the eve of major environmental overhaul coming from Washington, we will see the transition away from the grandfather of industrial energy production. And let’s not forget a major, major point – coal is a finite resource. The more we push the fossil fuel towards extinction by over-mining it, the less of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems we will have intact. Environmental politics suggest that Americans aren’t only interested in what’s good for M. Nature, but how our industrial and consumer practices impact what we broadly perceive to be “legacy.” What type of legacy does a leveled Appalachia leave for future generations?
On a side note, when news of the mine disaster broke, I felt completely devastated. This mine was the closest mine to the house I was living in in 2007. There are surface mining projects on top of the mine where the explosion occurred, and I took an extensive tour of those sites in 2007: