by James A. Bacon
On April 5, 2010, an explosion erupted in the Upper Big Branch coal mine of the Massey Energy Company, sending a fireball shooting through its long underground corridors. Twenty-nine miners were killed. It was the worst United States coal mining disaster since 1970.
In his newly published book, “Thunder on the Mountain” (St. Martin’s Press), Peter A. Galuszka (also known to Bacon’s Rebellion readers as the Gooze, or PAG) uses the disaster as a jumping off point to explore the promise and peril of Appalachian coal mining in a globally integrated economy. Re-telling the tragic story of the explosion and the rescue, he views the tragedy as the result of endemic lapses in mine safety at Massey Energy and the dysfunctional corporate culture engendered by its “renegade” CEO Don Blankenship who drove his miners to meet the voracious Chinese demand for metallurgical coal.
As Galuszka explains in his preface, the story is bigger than one mining disaster, one mining company and one villainous, bigger-than-life CEO. Having spent part of his youth in Harrison County, W.Va., when his father retired from his job as a Navy doctor to practice medicine there, he wrote the book to find answers to the enormous contradictions that he witnessed: “So much potential wealth but, in reality, so much poverty; beautiful, rugged landscapes marred by miles of tan strip mine gashes; and people and ideas isolated by geography and culture.”
He proceeds to escort readers through the history of the entrepreneurial Massey family and the company it created, the rise of the ruthless, hard-nosed Blankenship to corporate leadership, Massey Energy’s (allegedly) appalling safety record and the sale of the company to Alpha Natural resources. Along the way, he describes the coalfields’ desperate poverty, the despoiling of the mountains through strip mining and mountaintop removal, the coal country “culture wars,” and the global sources of supply and demand for the metallurgical coal — the world’s best — buried in Central Appalachia.
Galuszka prides himself on “shoe leather” journalism, and it shows. He enlivens the book with local color from his travels to West Virginia, Texas, Florida and locales as far as Fukushima, Japan, and Ulan Bator, Mongolia — all on his own dime, not on assignment for a newspaper or magazine. He also follows the story where it takes him, not to flesh out a pre-set narrative.
Thus, while it would have been easy enough to portray Blankenship as the Prince of Darkness, especially given his oft-outrageous behavior and his refusal to grant an interview, Galuszka managed to track down one of the coal boss’s acquaintances who praised his generosity to the community of Matewan and the people who lived there. While it would have been tempting to assign the coal industry sole responsibility for leaving the region mired in poverty, he describes the dysfunctional culture and widespread drug abuse that makes it difficult for even the best-intended companies to hire competent workers. While it would have suited his broader aims to depict environmentalists and other outsiders as saints and heroes, he acknowledges that some of them come across as hippies and do-gooders.
Galuszka can be sensitive to nuance. Here’s one example from his recounting of a debate between Blankenship and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “It suggests the complexity of [Blankenship's] personality — that as cartoonish and boorish as he may seem, he’s not afraid to sit on a stage before thousands of people without a TelePrompTer, or platoons of public relations people, and go at it with the scion of America’s most famous political family who obviously has most of the big media on his side.”
That’s the good Galuszka, the hard-nosed reporter who records even the facts that don’t fit his narrative. But the polemical Peter — the wild-eyed scourge of Republicans, Tea Partiers and free marketeers familiar to Bacon’s Rebellion readers — peeks through the book frequently enough to tarnish any veneer of objectivity.
Opponents of coal industry regulation aren’t principled, they are “hard right politicians.” Conservatives don’t object to President Obama’s policies, they “sneer.” “Hard right conservatives” don’t marshal evidence against the Global Warming consensus, they are “deniers” who lead “smear campaigns” and “screech” about supposed scandals. Massey Energy management nourished an “almost irrational hatred” of the United Mine Workers. Tea Party activists make “bogey men” out of big government and the cultural elite.
Unfortunately, this leftist mindset seeps into his analysis. Galuszka forces the facts into a class-warfare template of what ails Appalachia, casting the coal barons and their modern-day successors as the bad guys. That mindset leaves him befuddled to explain the central question of his book: Why is the region so poor? The problem is not that coal mining pays poorly — even non-union mining wages and benefits far exceed that of other occupations in the region. He veers close to an answer when notes the high rates of drug abuse and mental illness that make so many West Virginians unemployable, quoting a Norfolk Southern executive, “If you hold an employment event … you’ll get one hundred people applying for jobs, which is good. But after you do drug tests and the background checks, you’ll have maybe ten. And out of those, you’ll want to make offers to about three.”
Then he swerves away from the truth, advancing a hoary explanation, lacking any supporting evidence, that could have been lifted from Mother Jones: “Although there are far fewer coal jobs today, people remain frozen in a class system that was defined years ago by coal with the boss man in the house on the hill and more ordinary mortals in the double-wides or leftover coal camp cabins.”
Irrational, hard-right, bogeyman-seeking deniers in the conservative camp might offer a different template for viewing the problem. Poverty persists in Central Appalachia because there are too few coal mining jobs. Extraordinary increases in mining productivity have made it possible to unearth far more coal with one-tenth the number of workers. In contrast to other communities around the country that have managed to reinvent themselves, the coalfields cannot replace their lost jobs. And why is that? Could it be that a remote geography, low levels of educational achievement, rampant drug-abuse and mental-health issues and an irrepressible tradition of union activism have made mining counties a no-go zone for anyone whose business isn’t extracting coal (or, more recently, gas) from the ground? Galuszka never considers the possibility.
Fortunately, Galuszka is a good enough reporter that the book is still worth reading. I spent my time in the trenches for the Roanoke Times in the 1980s covering mine worker strikes, the strip mining controversy and mine disasters (including one at Pittston’s McClure mine) in Southwest Virginia. A 1982 Best News Writing award hangs on my wall for my writing about Virginia’s coal industry. And I can say this: Despite its flaws, “Thunder on the Mountain” is still the best book on the recent history of the coal industry that I have read. If you have any interest in the subject, you will find it an easy, entertaining and informative read.