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September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

Down in the Quecreek Mines

 By Bonnie Weinstein



There couldn’t have been a dry eye anywhere on Sunday, July 27th, 2002 as the last of the nine Quecreek miners was pulled up alive and in pretty good shape after more than 74 hours underground. As stories go this has to be one of the best of the year in the light of the horrors we have witnessed.

Not only were the miners rescued (and I must confess that I thought they were “goners”) but they became instant heroes along with the crews that worked tirelessly to save them.

In fact, according to an article by The Associated Press, “Bush Meeting With Rescued Miners” that appeared in the New York Times on August 5th, 2002, “Their story already has spurred interest in a book and a TV movie—the rights to which were snapped up by the Walt Disney Co. for $150,000 to each miner—and possibly a postage stamp.”

But behind this rosy picture is a much more sinister story—one of greed, falsification by omission, and outright deceit that risked the lives of those men and caused severe trauma to them and their families and struck fear into the hearts of all miners and their families that no amount of money can make up for.

While Democrats and Republicans banter about who’s to blame for the increase in mining fatalities since 1997, the real culprit is undeniable; no matter whether the mine owner is a Democrat or a Republican, they have shown that their quest for profit takes precedence over the lives and safety of the miners who risk life and limb every day.

It is the nature of capitalism itself that puts profits before human needs (or safety). Both Democrats and Republicans stand shoulder to shoulder on the side of capitalism. In fact, that ais what defines all capitalist politicians no matter what they call themselves.

According to The Associated Press article that appeared in the New York Times on August 1st, 2002, “Feds to Probe Mining Practices, [the] near-tragedy came as federal officials grapple with a rise in coal mine fatalities. A century ago, about 3,000 coal miners died every year. As safety regulations were tightened, that number dropped to an all-time low of 28 in 1997. Since then, however, fatalities have risen, with 42 recorded last year.”

Mine owners’ greed is to blame

These figures are far more significant when the proportion of fatalities to miners active in the nation’s coal industry a century ago is contrasted to the much smaller number of miners in the industry today. For instance:

While the bare number of fatalities give the impression that there is substantially improved safety standards this claim must be put in the perspective of another article from the Nation on July 28th headed, “‘Mining deaths once prevalent’: There was a time when coal was king in Pennsylvania, when hundreds of thousands of miners produced hundreds of millions of tons of coal each year—and too many died doing it.”

The reason that 3000 miners died a century ago as opposed to the 42 recorded last year was not just due to how safe the mines have become. In fact, according to the same article, “In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were just 8,668 miners in the state, and they dug 78.3 million tons of coal. One died.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, if you look at the numbers of miners—hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania then as opposed to 8,668 now—you can see that the biggest reason for the decrease in fatalities is largely due to the decrease in the number of miners. Mining is still, perhaps, as dangerous as before. And the greed of the mine owners is still to blame for the unsafe conditions, as you will see in the case of the Quecreek mine accident.

In fact, the nine miners recently rescued from the Quecreek mine were employees of Black Wolf Coal, the operator of Quecreek mine. According to the July 28 Nation article quoted above: “The Black Wolf mine is a relatively small, 65-employee operation. Since opening in January 2001, it has been cited for 26 safety violations—from having inexperienced miners to combustible materials—and ordered to pay fines of $856, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records showed. A 30-foot by 40-foot section of the roof collapsed in October but no one was injured.”

(Could it be that there was a cavalier attitude by the government agency about safety by Black Wolf since it’s evident the owners would be able to easily withstand another slap on the wrist by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration?)

But, in the instance of the Quecreek mine and Black Wolf Coal, there is more to the story of how this accident most probably occurred. It is a concrete example of capitalists sacrificing the safety of human beings and the well being of their families, for profit.

A baseball diamond-sized space left off the maps!

In an article in the Nation, July 30th, 2002, entitled, “Mine maps will get closer look”:

“One retired miner suggested Monday that details [in the case of the Quecreek accident] had been deliberately left off an old map to cover up how much coal was removed before the adjacent mine was abandoned…Retired miner Joseph Jashienski said the map of the abandoned mine, the Saxman, was wrong because of improper mining techniques used the day before it was abandoned.”
Jashienski, 89, said the now-defunct Saxman Coal and Coke gathered all the coal it could that day by using its mining machine to carve out a large space in the shape of a baseball diamond. He said the now-deceased mine superintendent who made the map left that detail out because going beyond the area of their permits or mining rights would raise red flags with regulators. “He didn’t want anybody to know he made a ball field the last day of work,” said Jashienski, who declined to identify the manager.
If you put on the map that you made a ball field, the state inspector is going to wonder what you are doing. Scott Roberts, the head of the mineral resource management division of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said he wasn’t aware of Jashienski’s claim but said it sounded valid. “I wouldn’t dispute what he said a bit. If he mined in it, he’s first-hand information,” Roberts said.

While the Quecreek miners are not members of the UMWA, in a July 20th news release from Cecil E. Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America, said :

“While the Quecreek rescue was playing out, many UMWA members could not help but be reminded of a terrible accident that occurred Sept. 23, 2001, at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 coal mine in Brookwood, Ala.
There, a horrific explosion ripped through a mine section, knocking three miners to the ground and seriously injuring one of them. The two uninjured miners went to get help for their fallen brother, but when 12 others returned to attempt a rescue, another explosion tore through the mine, killing them all, including the injured miner waiting to be rescued. It was an awful tragedy that was unfortunately overshadowed by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
An inquiry into what caused the Quecreek accident will soon begin, but the investigation into the Brookwood disaster is already well under way. One of the most alarming things uncovered so far is that prior to the explosions, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors had cited: “the mine operator for 31 violations—including high levels of free-floating combustible coal dust—that they allegedly never followed up on. Could the coal dust have contributed to the explosions?”

What all these facts add up to is that the miners, the men and women who risk their lives each day going into the belly of the earth can no longer depend on the accuracy of the maps that they are supposed to depend on, nor can they depend on federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors to enforce safety guidelines and standards.

What is the solution to the problem of mine safety? Actually there is a very simple and logical solution to the problem. Put the miners themselves in charge of their own safety. Let the miners themselves determine if conditions are safe.

The company should be mandated by federal law to provide the most up to date maps and equipment that the workers, themselves, deem necessary for their safety; with guaranteed full pay when mines are determined to be unsafe to work. Who should pay for this? It should come directly out of the profits of the company with no increase in price to the consumer.

This is what socialism is all about; workers control over the means of production, (the facility itself whether its a supermarket or a mine, the equipment, the work force, the scheduling, working conditions, benefits, etc.) Just cut out the “middle man”—the capitalist—and use the profits they alone would pocket to insure the needs of the workers themselves.

In a very short time the resourcefulness of workers all over the world could create a safe and streamlined production system using every available modern device to produce for the human needs of all, at the expense of profits for the tiny few.

With workers in control of the means of production they would be able to mechanize to the fullest, cut the hours of work with no reduction in pay and spare no expense in providing a safe working environment. Under a system such as this it would be to everyone’s advantage to work as safely, comfortably and efficiently as possible. With no attention having to be spent on the “cost” of safety.

Under a socialist society democratically controlled by the whole working class we could even decide to retire all coal miners, or any other workers in areas deemed too dangerous by the workers themselves, with full pay and benefits for the rest of their lives. In fact there is no limit to what we could do.

English children coalminers are shown here with a pit pony in 1935 in a mine far underground in Yorkshire. Child labor was widely used both in England and the U.S. “If a miner’s working life is 40 years the chances are nearly 7 to 1 against his escaping injury and 20 to one of being killed outright.”
—George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.

Photo in the Hulton Getty Collection.





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