Poverty and Death in the Coalfields

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.

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0 responses to “Poverty and Death in the Coalfields

  1. Jim,
    Thanks you for taking the time to review my book. I do appreciate the generally positive review, but I do have a few points to rebut and clarify:

    (1) “… to meet the voracious Chinese demand for metallurgical coal.” Yes, the drop in Australian met coal exports in 2009 and 2010 due to unusual weather problems did make China’s demand felt elsewhere but as the book states, it put pressure on the met market globally. Upper Big Branch itself was not gearing up just to serve China as your statement implies and the book does not say so.
    (2) “Massey Energy’s (allegedly) appalling safety record.” There is nothing “allegedly” about it. The facts speak for themselves.
    (3) Yes I did try repeatedly to talk with Blankenship and have in the past, but you somehow seem to imply that taking the trouble to talk to people who might say good things about him is a recommendation for the book. I find that odd.
    (4) “Polemical Peter?” “Wild-eyed scourge?” A bit over the top, don’t you think? There is nothing wrong with having a point of view, or is that just reserved for James A. Bacon Jr.?
    (5) Regarding the socio-economic problems in Central Appalachia – I do note that non-union coal jobs pay as well as union ones.
    (6) “This leftist mindset seeps into his analysis?” So what? Does this mean I should stick to mere “reporting” 101 and not have any thoughts of my own? And so what if my ideas have a political perspective? You seem to have trouble realizing that I am writing a book here, not a newspaper story.
    (7) “Poverty persists in too few coal jobs.” Excuse me, but if you know the Appalachians as well as you say you do (state award for writing 30 years ago for a regional newspaper), you might know, as the book states, that there were many more coal jobs years ago and poverty was even worse. While it is true that improvements in mine efficiency (not “extraordinary” though) have meant fewer jobs are necessary, that is true throughout the entire raw materials, mining and manufacturing sectors of every economy.
    (8) You set up the residents of West Virginia, Kentucky and Southwest Virginia for a rather nasty put down when you suggest that they are too remote, drugged-out or ignorant to be an attractive workforce. “Galuszka never considers the possibility.” This sentence is flat wrong. I discuss the region’s economic future at considerable length, noting that the strong work ethic of the regional labor force is a major attraction for jobs. Early on, for instance, I discuss how the FBI recruited mountain folk, especially young women, in its formative years because the workers were so dedicated and disciplined. I discuss the region’s future at length, noting that the work ethic is actually a huge attraction to corporations (page numbers on request). There are significant problems with drug use but your adopted hometown has them, too.
    (9) You constantly use the word “strip mining” and avoid “mountaintop removal.” This is an obvious and politically loaded choice on your part that is in keeping with your conservative point of view. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but the levels of destruction cannot be compared. You may not know. When you were on the coal beat in the early 1980s, mountaintop removal hadn’t really begun yet.
    (10) The book raises many other issues that you ignore. These include why we should kill our miners and strip our mountains to serve rapacious Asian met coal markets and why so little of the money actually stays in the region. Coal is a major contributing to climate change yet finding engineering solutions is a big problem in this country for reasons other than politics, as my book states. You ignore this. You did not note the corporate governance issues and their failures regarding Massey Energy board of directors and Don Blankenship that I bring up. Upper Big Branch pointed out tremendous flaws in mine safety regulation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, can subpoena records in probes into setting milk prices but the Mine Safety and Health Administration does not have subpoena power to probe mine incident involving human lives. The coal industry is in the midst of a well-funded campaign to stamp out any legal reforms. You also ignore the larger point of whether coal has a place in our energy future.
    (11) Your conclusion is a kind of odd smack down and compliment. “Fortunately Galuszka is a good enough reporter that the book is still worth reading.” I guess I am back to being a “reporter” because any time I actually think about something and offer an opinion that doesn’t agree with your political philosophy I just don’t cut the mustard. Then you state: “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.”

    Which is it, Jim? When you make up your mind, give me a call.

    Thanks again,

  2. Point well taken about “the voracious demand for Chinese coal” statement. My bad.

    As for the rest, the differences between you and me can be summarized very succinctly: People with different political/philosophical viewpoints would write very different books on the same subject.

  3. Very interesting. But I still can’t buy the book until Sept 18 – right?

  4. You can order the book now. Just follow the link on the “Thunder on the Mountain” book blurb in the right-hand rail to Amazon.com.

    • Jim:

      I ordered the book from this site. I paid and requested that the book be delivered to my iPad. However, the message from Amazon.Com said I will not get the book until Sept 18. No problem. I’ll read the book when it arrives.

  5. Groveton,
    Yes, Sept 18! If you buy a book, I will buy you a beer (someday) and Jim Bacon can talk about the tome’s flaws!

    • Peter:

      You owe me a beer. I will read the book when I get it on my iPad. I hope you spent adequate time analyzing how the Richmond elite and their hand puppets in the Virginia General Assembly conspire to molly coddle bad actors like Massey energy and Phillip Morris.

      • You’ll be disappointed. Don Blankenship spent very little time in Virginia. He spent his energy working the hand puppets in the West Virginia legislature (and judiciary).

        • Jim, Jim, Jim ….

          How quickly you forget.

          “The plant proposal originated from a 2004 law approved by the General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). The provision, part of a deregulation effort, encouraged Dominion to build the plant to meet the state’s energy needs while boosting coal production in southwest Virginia.”.

          Even the liberal Democrat CINOs (Conservationists In Name Only) are hand puppets for the Richmond elite.


          I guess Tim Kaine is a global warming denier. Or, a hand puppet.

          And Massey Energy was headquartered where?

          • Massey was, of course, headquartered in Richmond. But for decades, if not always, it had no mining operations in Virginia. It had nothing to gain from a law favoring coal production in Virginia. If anything, the Dominion law you cited would have discriminated against the Kentucky and West Virginia coal that Massey did produce. I covered the coal industry for many years and I can assure you that Massey Energy was a non-factor in issues affecting the Virginia coalfields. The only Virginia-related issues that Massey took an interest in were tied to the transportation of coal across the state and the loading of coal in the ports of Hampton Roads.

  6. I too will be buying the book. Massey is no more, right? The Wiki entry narrative supports Peter’s version much more than Jims IMHO.

    Massey has a long history of less than wonderful actions including the hiring of thugs early on to intimidate unionization.

    The essential question to me is that is it possible for a company to do right by it’s employees and the answer is yes and there are countless examples of them doing so. Massey is not one of those companies.

    The record is clear that Massey was short on safety, long on profits, and, in general predatory of the workers.

    No matter what the educational level or other problems workers might have, it, in no way, justifies bad treatment from a company to the workforce as a whole.

    I’m to the right of Peter in general and way right when it comes to fiscal issues but there is a long and sordid history of coal mining and treatment of workers in Appalachia and Massey is part of it.

  7. Jim Bacon should really check his facts before he makes sweeping statements. Massey Energy indeed did run mines in Virginia. I visited one with Don Blankenship’s personal permission in late 2002 in Red Ash near Richlands. I describe it in my book. Massey’s predecessor has had a huge footprint in Virginia philanthropy over decades, as I describe in my book.
    Jim may be correct when he alludes to the fact that Massey Energy under Blankenship had far more political clout in West Virginia — Blankenship was a huge GOP contributor and was seen vacationing on the French Riviera with the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court.
    But as with other issues, including infrastructure demands inNorthern Virginia, Jim tends to bury his head in his Libertarian sands while playing “booster” to Richmond’s corporate elite. It might be helpful if he actually read my book or otherwise did research before he makes off-the-cuff statements of fact.

    • Here’s what I wrote: “But for decades, if not always, it had no mining operations in Virginia.” As recently as the late 1980s/early 1990s, it had zero mining presence in Virginia — that’s a fact. I wasn’t sure if it had picked up mining operations more recently, so I qualified the statement “if not always” with an “if.” I stand informed by Peter, and I retract my qualification.

      Peter, I did read the book. I do confess, however, that I did not commit the entire contents to memory. I apologize for forgetting the incident you cited.

      Back to Don’s original point: Does he have any evidence that Massey was implicated with the law requiring the Dominion plant to buy Virginia coal? Or does he simply assume that because the company was based in Richmond that it must have been involved? Is geographic proximity really enough to constitute proof? If so… wow! Don sure has changed his standards of proof. Go back and read the rigorous standards he set when I tried to argue that Northern Virginia localities with a tobacco tax were not subsidizing Richmond-area localities without such a tax.

      For what it’s worth, I opposed that 2004 legislation favoring Virginia coal in Dominion’s power plant. But that’s OK, instead of accusing me of toadying to Richmond’s elite in the form of coal companies, Peter can accuse me of toadying to Richmond’s elite in the form of Dominion. No matter what Bacon says or does, he’s a toady for someone!!!

      Perhaps it will surface that Massey did play a modest role in that 2004 legislation. But Don offers pure supposition, mixed with anti-Richmond vitriol, not fact. When it comes to bashing Richmond, perhaps that’s enough.

      • Richmond seems to attract companies that need a lot of regulatory help in order to survive. Dominion is a monopoly. It’s Richmond-based executives stuff money in their pockets while the state government indemnifies them from risk with guaranteed returns. Nice work, if you can get it. Phillip Morris is selling a product that kills people when used in the intended way. The state and local governments around Richmond make it easy for Phillip Morris to kill Richmonders by keeping the tobacco taxes at nearly the national low. Of course, the Richmonders most likely to smoke the cheap cigarettes are less educated and lower income. I guess that doesn’t affect many of the members of the Country Club of Virginia – it only affects their caddies. Then, there’s Massey Energy. One safety violation after another. Dead miners.

        Capital of the Confederacy. Cause of the loss of West Virginia. Statues of Confederate Generals that fought to preserve slavery line the streets of a city where the majority of the residents were among those who the Generals tried to keep enslaved. Meanwhile, the statue of a brilliant home-town tennis player whose life was tragically cut short by an AIDS tainted blood treatment causes controversy in 1990.

        Capital of Eugenics in America. Oversaw the performance of the last Eugenics sterilization in 1979. Ground Zero for the Massive Resistance “movement”. Settled school integration in 1986.

        A social elite who self-identify as “The First Families of Virginia” and claim to be descendants of Pocahontas ( a claim that required a 1/16th Native American exception to the no mixed marriage laws of the day).

        Richmond could have become what Atlanta is today. Richmond should have become what Atlanta is today. But it didn’t. And it didn’t because it has a petulant, near sighted and inbred political elite.

        • Don,

          This is just more fulmination without fact.

          Philip Morris needs regulatory help to survive? Really? I thought regulations nearly put the company out of business. I’m not sure how a Richmond location helps the company fight the regulators in Washington, D.C.

          Dominion? Back in the 1980s/1990s, Dominion led the charge for deregulation of the electric power industry.

          Massey Energy? It was a hell of a lot better company when Morgan Massey (who lived in Richmond) ran it than when operational control shifted to Don Blankenship in West Virginia. The Richmond offices houses little more than the tax and accounting team. Blaming them for mine fatalities is fatuous.

          • If Phillip Morris doesn’t need the Richmond area’s regulatory help to survive then raise the tax on cigarettes to the national average and spare some of your neighbors a painful and hideous death. Richmond is on the verge of having the lowest cigarette taxes in America. Meanwhile, The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond restricts the ability to tax cigarettes to a very few of the states 100+ counties. Why?

            Dominion led the charge for deregulation. Then, after the first whiff of what competition actually looks like – Dominion led the charge for re-regulation.


            Today, Dominion capitalizes on its cash flow by being the largest corporate contributor to the Virginia State Government politicians who oversee its regulation.

            Yeah, Jim – no conflict there.

            Massey Energy was a “heck of a lot better company”? How was that strike in 1984 handled? Blankenship joined a Massey subsidiary in 1982 at the age of 32. Did he have “operational control” two years later?


            Jim – you seem to have forgotten being the Capital of the Confederacy, losing West Virginia, the Confederate soldier statues, disrespecting the memory of hometown hero Arthur Ashe, eugenics, massive resistance, failing to resolve school desegregation until 1986, etc.

          • Losing West Virginia — 151 years ago.
            The Capital of the Confederacy — 147 years ago.
            Confederate soldier statues — erected about 100 years ago.
            Eugenics, massive resistance, etc. — about 50 years ago.

            I moved here in 1986. As far as I’m concerned, that stuff is all in the past. It’s not what Richmond is today. I’d say your view of this area is about a half century out of date. I’d much rather look ahead — to think about how to build a more prosperous, livable and sustainable community — than dwell on the past.

            I’ve seen a lot of positive change since I moved here, and I hope to play a role in continuing to move the region in the right direction. I know a lot of really good people who live here who want to do the right thing. Relentless negativity and mockery rarely changes anyone’s mind. Yours shall not deter me!

            If I were you, I would take a more thoughtful approach to thinking about how Northern Virginia could improve itself. Your blame-all-our-problems-on-Richmond schtick is pretty lame.

            Ask yourself, if NoVa is so progressive, why do so few African-Americans live in Northern Virginia and why do so many live in Maryland? Why does GMU, set in a region twice the size and three times the wealth of Richmond, have a smaller endowment than VCU? Why does the NoVa elite feel entitled to a $7 billion Metro connection to Dulles airport paid for by the little people, the Dulles Toll Road commuters? How come, with all those super-smart people up there, the private economy is still so overwhelmingly dependent upon federal government contracts?

            Yeah, sure, it’s all Richmond’s fault.

  8. Toady for Richmond! ALways! But I sense a positive change.

  9. “The Pittsburg, Pa.-based CONSOL, which operates coal mines across Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, announced Tuesday that it was idling the Buchanan Mine for 30 to 60 days.

    “CONSOL Energy is responding to weak market conditions throughout its export markets in Asia, Europe and South America,” the company said in a written announcement of the decision.”.

    “Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith blamed President Barack Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and activist groups for attacking the coal industry.”.

  10. DJR,
    Obama is not responsible for headwinds in the China and India metallurgical coal markets nor is he responsible for the fact that fracking has flooded the domestic energy market with cheap natural gas that utilities are choosing over coal because it is a lot less hassle.
    You might also want to take a look at today’s Post and a Siemens plant in Charlotte that makes blades for gas-fired turbines at power plants.
    Big Coal may blame Obama all it wants, but global market forces at at play and the huge safety and environmental issues raised by Massey’s behavior go unaddressed.
    When you read the book, you will see that ways to upgrade utility technology to use coal in a cleaner way have been abandoned due to market pressure and problems with state regulators in setting rates. Conservative bloggers like You Know Who Coal will see government plots, but it is really the good ole free market at work. Coal is actually a lot more complex than it looks.

  11. re: ” Yeah, sure, it’s all Richmond’s fault.”

    and Obama’s , right?


    some day, I’d like to see what NoVa would do if they could rid themselves of Dillon. My bet is – not much…

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