Category Archives: Poverty & income gap

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Fixing Food Deserts Won’t Fix Food Insecurity

by James A. Bacon

Speaking of food…food_desert there’s new research out on the differences in diet and nutrition between different socioeconomic groups. The conventional wisdom is that a major factor explaining the gap in nutritional quality between affluent and poor Americans is the difficulty poor people have in accessing fresher, healthier food — the food desert phenomenon.

Using new data sets unavailable to previous researchers, Jessie Handbury, Molly Schnell and Ilya Rahkovsky were able to hone in food-buying practices of poor and affluent shoppers in the same grocery store. They found that the same patterns prevailed  — affluent people buy healthier, more nutritious food than poor people do.

“Our results indicate that improving access to healthy foods alone will do little to close the gap in the nutritional quality of grocery purchases across different socioeconomic groups,” they write in “What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases across the Socioeconomic Spectrum,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Improving the concentration and nutritional quality of stores in the average low-income and low-education neighborhood to match those of the average high-income and high-education neighborhood would only close the gap in nutritional consumption across these groups by 1-3%.”

The authors suggest that two other variables are at play: the price of food and consumer preferences for certain kinds of food over others. Their research did not indicate the relative importance of those factors played in influencing food purchases.

Bacon’s bottom line: Once food preferences are established, it is very difficult to change them. That’s not to say it can’t be done — If I learned to like brocolli and brussel sprouts, for cryin’ out loud, anybody can change their food preferences — but it is a long, slow process. The problem is compounded by the fact that the food preferred by the poor — loaded with salt, fat and sugar — is engineered to taste better than healthy foods. And it’s compounded yet again by the fact is that many Americans across the income spectrum have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook healthy foods. Educated Americans acquire that knowledge by watching cooking channels, buying cook books, and exposing themselves to new foods at finer restaurants. Those options are less available to the poor.

Spending money to induce grocery stores to locate in food deserts and stock their shelves with nutritious food is a fool’s errand. Grocers won’t stock shelf space with food that no one buys. Conversely, if poor people (a) showed a strong preference for nutritious food and (b) could afford to buy it, grocers would need no prodding — they would supply what the customer demanded.

The lousy nutrition of America’s poor is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. To change how America eats, the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.

The Parental Backlash Against SOL Tests

SOL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

Although their numbers are small, more Virginia parents are refusing to have their children take the state’s Standards of Learning tests, saying that test preparation takes away from true education.

In the 2013 -14 school year, 681 SOL tests were coded as parent refusals out of the nearly three million given, with Northern Virginia, Prince William County in particular, having the highest number.

Some parents are annoyed that teachers in public schools spend so much time teaching how to take the SOLs, which are used to measure a child’s educational standing and also rate how well school districts are performing.

“Students can spend up to one-third of their time of the school year preparing for the tests and that is wrong,” says Gabriel Reich, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last year, he refused to allow his fifth-grade daughter to take the tests.

It isn’t really clear if parents and their children have the legal right to take the tests or not. If parents refuse, the child gets a “zero.” That might go against the school’s overall rating.

How it affects the student isn’t clear. Continual refusals could keep children out of special programs, such as ones for gifted students. But students from private schools, where SOLs are not usually taken, regularly transfer to public schools with little problem.

In different parts of the state, parents have formed grass roots groups to educate and support parents who have concerns that the mania for standardized testing is hurting true education.

Throughout the state, ad hoc groups are forming where parents can meet and plan refusals. In Richmond, RVA Opt Out meets every third Monday evening of the month and has tripled its attendance in the past several years.

Confronting standardized testing is in part a reaction of politicians who insist that standardized testing is a primary – if not the only – way to make sure that students are being educated properly. Such tests have been around for years but got a strong boost in former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program of 2002.

Standardized testing has also been used as a weapon against teachers’ unions. Some politicians have suggested that data from SOLs and other tests be collated and configured to give individual teachers ratings that could be made public – something teachers associations bitterly oppose.

What’s more, SOL and other similar data have been used for purposes that have little to do with education. Realtors often collect schools’ performance data to push home sales in certain neighborhoods to give for sale prospects snob appeal.

Critics say that multiple-choice testing doesn’t always reflect a student’s ability to think or show what he or she really understands. It also doesn’t reflect creativity to draw, paint or perform or write music.

The anti-testing movement is growing nationally. In one case in New York state, about 1.1 million children in grades three through eight typically take reading and math tests. Last year, about 67,000 children skipped the tests.

The push-back is growing.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.

A City No Longer Obsessed by Race

richmond_by_race

Source: Hamilton Lombard, StatChat

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond reached a quiet demographic tipping point about five years ago: It stopped being a majority-African-American city. Movement of blacks into suburban jurisdictions, an influx of whites into the city and a small-but-measurable increase in other races, including people who self-identified with two races, all contributed to the change.

Richmonders appear not to notice. There is a still a widespread perception of Richmond as a black-majority city (and, in fact, blacks still outnumber whites, although by a tiny margin.) African-Americans still dominate city government. Richmond has a black mayor, a black police chief, a black sheriff, a black school superintendent and a black commonwealth’s attorney.

I find it fascinating how little attention anyone is paying to the demographic shift – and what that lack of attention says about our times.

It wasn’t all that long ago — around 1980 — when Richmond, once a white-majority city, tipped into a black-majority jurisdiction, according to Hamilton Lombard, a demographer writing in StatChat, the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service blog. Political power shifted to blacks for the first time in a city that had been synonymous with Jim Crow segregation and massive resistance to integration. White flight, part of a national phenomenon, was highly publicized at the time, and local politics were racially polarized.

Now that the demographic pendulum has swing back, nobody seems to notice. Richmond City Council now is majority white, but the shift in racial representation has not resulted in calls for white racial patronage. Everybody’s focus seems to be on promoting economic development, addressing poverty and making city government function more effectively. (One can argue how well the city is faring on those fronts, but that’s where the focus is.)

Race is less of a divider in other ways. Although there remain hard-core pockets of concentrated, African-American poverty, most neighborhoods are less segregated than they once were, Lombard contends. “The concentration of blacks is beginning to lessen; in 2000, 13 census tracts in Richmond were over 95 percent black, but by 2013 only 4 of these census tracts were still over 95 percent black,” he writes. “During this same time period, the black population in the Richmond metro area’s suburban counties grew quickly as many of the city’s black residents moved to them.”

While the city continues to expand its housing base through infill and redevelopment, allowing for continued population growth, Lombard thinks it may never return to white-majority status. One big reason:

The number of people living in Richmond who describe themselves as being more than one race has tripled since 2000 to a little under 9,000. This is likely in part due to Virginia having the highest rate of marriage between blacks and whites in the country, but also because as racial identity means increasingly less today, many people are identifying with more than one race, some even writing in their own race. Considering how much publicity the last major demographic change in Richmond received, the lack of attention given to the current one reveals how much Richmond itself has changed.

Racial identity politics is such a powerful force nationally that it’s hard to imagine that Richmond — the former capital of the Confederacy and locus of massive resistance, as some like to continually remind us — could be so lackadaisical and unaware of a shift that once would have been regarded as so profound. That is a sign of tremendous progress, and it augurs well for the future.

Using Big Data to Lift Americans out of Poverty

Senior person hands begging for food or helpWe’ve reached a dead end in the debate over poverty here in the United States. Liberals and Democrats say that all we need is to throw more money at the program, as if the trillions we’ve spent over the past 50 years were not enough. Conservatives and Republicans, while great at dissecting the failure of Great Society anti-poverty programs, don’t have much to offer in their place. No one, not even mean, skin-flinted conservatives like me, want to slash benefits willy nilly. No one wants a country in which poor children starve or poor sick people die from a sudden retraction of the safety net.

Is there a third way? Perhaps. From the small but magnificent country of New Zealand (run by the conservative National Party) comes a new idea: using Big Data to target welfare dollars where they are most needed. Allegheny County, Pa., (which includes Pittsburgh) is hiring a Kiwi pioneer in the field to apply the same approach to the American welfare system. Maybe Virginia should consider doing the same.

Writes Josh Eidelson with Bloomberg:

In 2010, when [New Zealand] Minister of Finance Bill English first convened a policy group to review welfare spending, government statistics showed half the 4,300 teenage single mothers receiving benefits in that country were likely to remain in the welfare system for 20 years, at a total cost of about $264,000 each. The government responded with $23 million to assign individual case workers to help teenage mothers finish school and find work. Now, after four years, the number of teenage single parents on benefits has dropped to 2,600.

Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

What works in a small, homogeneous country like New Zealand may not translate well to a large, multicultural country like the United States with a culture of inter-generational poverty and dysfunctional governance institutions. But, then, it’s just possible that the Kiwi model will work here. Given our impotence in combating poverty in the U.S., we don’t have anything to lose. If we frame the initiative as fiscally conservative (no one is asking to spend more money or raise taxes) and as pragmatically effective (we succeed at actually lifting at-risk people out of poverty), using Big Data to combat poverty would at least be a political winner.

– JAB

An Encouraging Response

Tara Adams

Tara Adams. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

by James A. Bacon

Last week a brawl broke out in the cafeteria of Varina High School in Henrico County, leading to mayhem and a lockdown of the school. On Sunday, 200 parents, teachers, school officials and some students gathered to discuss how the community can prevent future incidents. I found the comments, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to be encouraging. No one blamed the police, or the school system, or poverty, or society at large. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that parents need to step up and hold their children accountable.

“We’ve just got to do a better job as parents,” said Tyrone E. Nelson, Varina District supervisor. “We have to hold each other accountable when we are dealing with our children.”

“We need parents instead of the police to be the presence,” said Tara Adams, a former president of the PTA. “Stand up. Be adults and be accountable.”

However, observed Times-Dispatch reporter Jim Nolan, “It was not lost on the gathering the the parents and students most likely to be in need of hearing the message were likely not in the audience.”

Image capture from YouTube posting, "Crazy Ass Varina Fight."

Image capture from YouTube posting, “Crazy Ass Varina Fight.”

Bacon’s bottom line: In other words, the audience consisted of parents who already do hold their children accountable for their behavior and who show every sign of caring deeply about the quality of education their children are receiving at Varina. With all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the students on the receiving end of school and police discipline, this meeting serves as a reminder that there are plenty of students from responsible families whose education is disrupted on a regular basis. The mass fight in the cafeteria was an extreme manifestation of a more pervasive problem reflected in smaller altercations and incidents. Thanks to the Sunday gathering, responsible families had a venue to express a perspective that does not get heard enough.

The Varina incident comes as the Henrico County Public Schools system overhauls its Code of Community Conduct, which describes the rights and responsibilities of students and parents, outlines the progressive consequences of continued bad behavior and describes “corrective” strategies.

The new approach has had a positive impact on the number of incidents at schools, William Noel Sr., director of student support and disciplinary review, told me for an article I never ended up writing. Unless the infraction is egregious, he said, there is a process in which the administration meets face-to-face with the student and with parents. A behavior plan and student supports are put into place. The idea is to teach the child to make better choices, while recognizing that there may be reasons based on what’s happening at home why the child is “acting out.”

Sounds touchie-feely to me. But at the time of the interview a few months ago, the approach seemed to be working, as measured by a declining number of infractions. If it’s working, that’s great. But I also think there’s wisdom in what the Varina parents were saying yesterday. The onus of improving school discipline shouldn’t fall mainly upon the schools. Parents have to play a role as well. And that won’t happen unless the responsible members of the community speak up and set expectations of acceptable behavior.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.