Harlan County Blues

Harlan County Blues

Life remains cheap in the coalfields of Appalachia because of the Bush Administration’s incompetence and neglect in the face of human and environmental tragedy.


Almost every day in Kentucky, we learn a little more about what killed five Harlan County miners in May. We’ve learned that cheap foam seals, opposed by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), allowed for a buildup of methane in the mine and may also have been to blame for the explosion at the Sago mine in West Virginia. And we’ve learned that the seals were improperly built and coated with a sealant that wasn’t approved for mine use.

Still, the majority of miners at both Sago and the Darby No. 1 mine in Harlan survived the initial blasts. They died because their self-rescuers held only an hour’s worth of oxygen. In the late 1990s the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed installing more caches of oxygen inside the mines. But the Bush Administration, under former mining executive David Lauriski, withdrew that idea in September 2001, calling it cost-prohibitive. Back in 1997, as general manager of Energy West Mining Company, Lauriski lobbied MSHA to raise fourfold the amount of coal dust allowed in underground mines. Once installed to oversee the agency, he began pushing the proposal again. The irony here is obscene: A man put in charge of enforcing federal mine safety decided to put miners at much greater risk of contracting black lung disease, purely in the name of profit for his former employer.

Another bitter irony is that the thirtieth anniversary DVD of Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County U.S.A. was released the same week the Harlan County miners died. The confluence of these events is cause for reflection.

Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary chronicles a thirteen-month strike at the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. In 1973 the Brookside miners joined the UMWA, but Duke Power refused to accept a union contract. The miners went out on strike, and an escalating fight ensued between gun thugs hired by Duke Power and the men and women on the picket line. Finally, a Duke Power employee shot miner Lawrence Jones in the face one night and Jones died at the hospital. On the elegy “Lawrence Jones,” from the extraordinary reissued and expanded soundtrack, Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs of the Miner’s Struggle (Rounder), Bela Fleck plays a haunting banjo as Phyllis Boyens sings:

There’s blood upon your contract like vinegar in your wine
’cause there’s one man dead on the Harlan County line.

Sensing the violence and bad press about to be unleashed, the company quickly started negotiations with the union miners.

That’s the bones of it. But Harlan County U.S.A. is hardly a straightforward narrative. Kopple’s genius is to reveal slowly–through backstory, testimony, archival footage and music–the political, historical and economic forces that led to this long standoff in one of the country’s poorest places. “In Harlan County, all our lives we’ve been kicked around,” a miner tells a room full of Duke Power shareholders toward the middle of the strike. Fundamentally, Harlan County U.S.A. is a portrait of a community tired of being kicked around and grasping for the means to kick back.

While the Brookside strike did end in a union contract, it proved to be a minor victory for labor. Today, there’s not a single union mine in Harlan County. And yet as Roger Ebert said on a panel last year at Sundance (one of the extras on the new DVD, along with commentary by Kopple, singer Hazel Dickens and Matewan director John Sayles), Harlan County U.S.A. “is more important today than it was then.” Now as then, the odds of forcing large coal companies to do the right thing remain long. For one reason, the people of central Appalachia live in steep, remote mountains, and the media’s interest in them rarely reaches beyond hillbilly stereotypes (Kopple’s empathy for the miners and their wives–her refusal to see them as clichés–is one of the film’s many virtues). In addition, the Kentucky and West Virginia state legislatures were long ago bought off with coal money. This year in Kentucky a bill to stop burying mountain streams with coal waste never got out of committee–in a state where 95 percent of headwater streams have been contaminated by mine waste, according to the EPA. And finally, there’s the $100,000 that Massey Energy donated to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, headed by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. In large part because McConnell is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the coal industry has poured more than $9 million into Republican coffers during the past four years. In return, according to a Knight-Ridder survey, MSHA under the Bush Administration has issued fewer and smaller fines, has collected on less than half of these fines and has cut 100 mine-safety enforcement jobs.

“Distance negates responsibility,” wrote my teacher Guy Davenport. In Harlan County U.S.A. Duke Power of North Carolina was the company exploiting Kentucky families from a clean distance. Today, many of the most dangerous and environmentally destructive mines in Appalachia are run by absentee owners like Peabody Energy in St. Louis, TECO Energy in Tampa and Massey Energy in Richmond, Virginia. Thirty years ago during the Brookside strike, the coal industry was posting record profits, as it is today. While industry profits rose 170 percent in 1975, miners’ wages rose only 4 percent. Today, the issue isn’t wages so much as safety. One might think the high price of coal would allow for needed improvements underground, but the opposite seems true.

Last fall, in a memo to employees, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship wrote, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” The opening scene of Harlan County U.S.A. shows a miner doing one such “construction job”–installing a support beam so he can work in a forty-two-inch shaft without its roof collapsing on him. But to Blankenship, the record profits mean that conveyor belts–like Midwestern meat-packing lines–must run even faster. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a MSHA inspector tried to close part of a Massey mine in West Virginia in January because of a buildup of flammable coal waste along the mine’s conveyor belt. But a superior told him to back off so the company could “run coal.” On January 19 a fire broke out, killing two miners. Massey still refuses to cooperate in the investigation of their deaths. Thirty-seven more men have been killed in the mines since Blankenship issued his memo, largely because production has trumped safety. Regrettably, it has always taken high casualties to force our political hirelings to strengthen mine-safety laws. On June 15, with widows and other family members looking on, George W. Bush signed legislation that required more oxygen in the mines and more rescue teams. But whether MSHA will actually enforce the new law is another matter entirely.

That Elaine Chao has nominated former Massey executive Richard Stickler to replace David Lauriski as head of MSHA is not an encouraging sign. Also distressing is Bush’s nomination of former Lauriski deputy John Correll to head the Office of Surface Mining. He was part of the Lauriski team that canceled or delayed eighteen mine-safety rules at MSHA. And Correll, no surprise here, also comes from the industry he might now be asked to regulate. It looks like the next two years will mean more toxic streams, deadly floods and mudslides, and oppressive coal dust for the communities below these strip mines. As a recent Lexington Herald-Leader editorial lamented, “It’s probably too much to hope that Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning would put the interests of their constituents above those of the coal industry.”

Which is to say, we do fatalism pretty well around here. When you watch entire ranges destroyed by mountaintop removal mining and hear constant stories of unsafe deep mines, it’s hard not to expect the worst. One even senses it in the lyrics of pioneering folk songwriter Hazel Dickens as she sings over the closing credits of Harlan County U.S.A.:

The power wheel is rollin’ rollin’ right along
and the government will keep it goin’ goin’ strong.
So working people get your help from your own kind.
Your welfare ain’t on that rich man’s mind.

If the past six months have clarified anything, it is that life remains cheap in the coalfields, and many far-removed CEOs like it that way. Is it too much, then, to hope? At a recent commencement address here in Lexington, Nobel laureate and poet Seamus Heaney put it this way: Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but “something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” One sees few reasons for optimism these days, but the Bush Administration’s incompetence and neglect in the face of human and environmental tragedies clearly reveals that there is much good work that now needs doing.

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