Less Than Miraculous

Less Than Miraculous

Pennsylvania’s mine rescue was inspiring, but the real story was corporate greed.



Last summer the attention of the nation and the world was riveted by the rescue that brought nine Pennsylvania coal miners out of a mine in Somerset County. In a period of economic recession full of anxieties generated by the 9/11 attack, the gripping drama of the rescue provided an inspiring, positive moment for the nation. As investigations proceed, however, broader dimensions of the story are unveiled.

The most common characterization of the incident was “miraculous.” In this conservative and religious rural area, a combination of the memory of many mining deaths, the dedication and commitment of the rescuers, and the solidarity of the trapped men triggered an outpouring of church and community sentiment. The emotion of the moment was further intensified in the national media by the fact that the September 11 crash site of United Flight 93, with its well-promoted message of courage and solidarity in the face of death, was only thirteen miles away.

The flood of testimonials to the mercy of God threatens to obscure the very human factors that led to the near-disaster. In fact, the flooding of the nonunion mine reveals much about government inadequacy stemming from chronic underfunding; government incompetence and/or complicity with powerful vested interests; corporate irresponsibility and greed; and coordinated anti-union activity. God may well have had a hand in the rescue, but human avarice and more than a century of fierce corporate manipulation and struggle for profit and control were behind the wall of water that swept into the Quecreek mine.

Most of the investigations of the July 24, 2002, near-disaster undertaken to date have focused on the failure of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to provide up-to-date mine maps. The discovery of a more recent map of previous mining than the one the state provided in 1999 when it issued a mining permit to Mincorp–sponsor of Black Wolf Coal Company, the actual operator of the mine–tended to exonerate Black Wolf owner-operator David Rebuck. Rebuck, a former Mincorp executive, even called the flooding an “act of God” in one local TV interview. In fact, Black Wolf had multiple warnings about the inadequacy of its 1957 map, drafted seven years before mining ended at the adjoining Saxman mine–the source of the Quecreek flood.

Carl Prine, a reporter for the Greensburg Tribune-Review, wrote right after the incident that “letters and public comment in 1999 from former miners, geochemists and farmers long experienced with groundwater and mine safety issues strongly urged state regulators to deny the Quecreek permit.” After the accident, one local resident, Jeffrey Bender, told the newspaper, “We all knew something like this would happen. We supported the miners and prayed for them, but we all knew what would happen, would happen. What’s frustrating for us is that we warned DEP and they seemed to be on the side of the mine, not us.”

After the disaster, several elderly former Saxman miners claimed on local television that they had gone to Black Wolf in the months just preceding the breach to warn the company that its map was inadequate and that Black Wolf was nearing the Saxman Coal Harrison #2 mine workings. Joseph Jashienski, a former Saxman foreman, told the Tribune-Review that he had alerted Black Wolf employees about the mine map inadequacies months earlier. More recently, Blaine Mayhugh, one of the trapped miners, said that Randy Fogle, their crew foreman, expecting imminent death, revealed that he had gone to Rebuck two weeks before the accident urging him to pull out. According to Mayhugh, Fogle told Rebuck “things were getting bad.”

When the accident happened, Rebuck claimed that the mine was normal and that state inspectors had visited recently. But Nick Molnar, a United Mine Workers organizer who was at the rescue, called me the following weekend and raised the question, If conditions were normal, why were all the rescued men wearing rain gear, and why had the mine’s pumps been running full bore prior to the water’s breakthrough? Indeed, one of the nine trapped miners, John Philippi, subsequently testified before Senator Arlen Specter’s labor appropriations subcommittee on October 21 that production had been greatly reduced in the days preceding the flood because of the supersaturated state of the mine. “The problem was water was coming down the roof,” Philippi testified. “The roof bolters couldn’t keep up. Everything was sloppy and wet. It [the roof] couldn’t hold the roof bolts.”

State and federal inspectors reportedly visited the mine the week before the flooding and noted the water, which they attributed in the DEP report on the accident to natural aquifers. Unlike the situation in a union mine, where inspectors would have been accompanied by worker-elected mine-safety reps who might well have insisted on asking workers their opinion about conditions, the state inspectors reportedly did not hear any complaints about mining conditions. Union miners might well have insisted that test drilling precede mining in any border area as potentially dangerous as the approaching Saxman mine.

Advance drilling is a much more reliable method for establishing mine borders than mapping. It provides physical evidence onsite in real time, not historic evidence subject to bureaucratic incompetence or worse. Union miners at Saxman had been trained not to mine up-slope because of the flooding problems in the area. Quecreek miners were mining up-slope directly toward a large mine that available hydrological studies had shown was full of millions of gallons of water. The company had a drill machine, but it was not onsite.

The ultimate act of political cynicism was reserved for President Bush, who made a choreographed whistle-stop visit to the rescued miners on his way to a million-dollar campaign fundraiser in Pittsburgh. While his Administration has cut black lung benefits as well as funding and employees from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, he came to “celebrate life, the value of life and…the spirit of America.” Unwittingly, one paragraph of Bush’s remarks actually came close to defining the central issue: “They understood that they needed to rely upon each other, rely upon the strength of each. They huddled to keep warm; they said prayers to keep their spirits up. They understood they needed to tie together to fight the underground current. It was their determination to stick together and to comfort each other that really defines kind of a new spirit that’s prevalent in our country, that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer; that in order to succeed, we’ve got to be united.”

United? How about the United Mine Workers of America? How about “an injury to one is an injury to all”? If Quecreek had been union, workers might have been more candid about company responsibility immediately after the rescue, when some of them supported management’s claim of normal mining conditions. If the union had been recognized, the workers could have refused to continue advancing–without fear for their jobs–as they saw conditions worsening.

In fact, three of the nine rescued miners had signed union cards in the past and were very aware of the price of trying to be united. Repeated attempts to organize Quecreek had broken down because the majority of the miners were intimidated. UMWA organizer Nick Molnar (now retired) told me: “The company gets wind of our presence and first you get threats to fire individuals who support the union; that’s followed by veiled threats about closing the mine. In a depressed area, such actions are extremely effective.” Once issues of company negligence were raised and the attorney for most of the miners threatened to sue, local and national television gave voice to a company miner who criticized questions about the operation of the local coal industry, saying such exposure threatens the jobs and livelihood of those miners still working at Black Wolf and elsewhere.

Unfortunately that’s true. Coal mining in Somerset County is a tough and hard business, with the price of coal at under $30 a ton. While in the 1950s mining and steel provided 40 percent of the jobs in Somerset and adjoining Cambria counties, the major employers now are healthcare facilities, prisons and resorts, providing mostly low-wage jobs. Average earnings in Somerset County are $23,153 a year; a nonunion miner averages almost $34,000.

This past summer, Nick Molnar and I toured a 3,100-foot-deep German mine that produces government-subsidized coal at $200 a ton; miners there retire at 50 with 95 percent of salary and free medical care. People conserve energy in Europe because it is not cheap. Quecreek Mine was run no worse than many other operations here and around the world. Unionism is fiercely resisted, among other reasons, because health and safety, adequate medical care and a decent retirement cost money.

Somerset County has been a battleground between the mineworkers union and anti-union operators for more than a century. Up in the northeast of the county a sharp controversy arose last summer and fall over the placement of a state-approved historical marker commemorating the bitter “Windber Strike for Union: 1922-3.” The town of Windber was the operations center of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company, which once provided coal to New York City’s commuter rail system. As the strike stretched for sixteen months, with miners’ families, after being evicted from their homes, spending a winter in tents and makeshift shelters, the mayor of New York City sent a commission of inquiry. Its finding–that the condition of the striking miners was “worse than the conditions of the slaves prior to the Civil War”–was reported around the country.

The Berwind Group today is a billion-dollar company with nearly 4,000 employees, and Berwind Corporation, a subsidiary, is the largest landowner in Cambria and Somerset counties, owning approximately 35,000 acres. As its name indicates, Berwind is deeply involved in Windber. In December, after months of dispute, the Windber City Council approved the placement of the marker in the town’s Miners’ Park, and sponsors dropped the reference to slavery. The UMWA plans to hold its traditional April 1 Mitchell Day rally in Windber to dedicate the marker.

Layers of ownerships and partnerships fill the space between hardscrabble operators like Black Wolf and the big corporate entities like Citigroup. The underground rights to the Quecreek coal are owned by PBS Coals (whose name is derived from Preston, Bedford and Somerset counties), a subsidiary of Mincorp, at one time itself a subsidiary of Burnett & Hallamshire of England. B&H bought PBS in the late 1980s with help from Kuwaiti investors, thus closing a historic circle: Andrew Mellon, who with his partner Henry Clay Frick controlled large swaths of the adjoining coalfields of Westmoreland and Fayette counties, picked up the oilfields of Kuwait for his Pittsburgh-based Gulf Oil Company while he was ambassador to England in the early 1930s. When B&H got into financial trouble, Mincorp was bought out by Citigroup. Legal firewalls limit the liability of the big corporations. Profits are taken off the top while responsibility is pushed relentlessly downstream. In fact, as the DEP report concludes, under Pennsylvania mining law, when an accident occurs, the foreman and superintendent shoulder the responsibility, and “the mine owner has virtually no responsibilities.”

The outside world has lionized the nine trapped men. Disney dramatizes, The New Yorker extols, Vanity Fair markets them. The rescuers who lived on the site for three exhausting days and nights play cameo roles. But the second crew of nine miners who barely escaped are hardly mentioned. And beyond them are the tens of thousands of workers who daily go down into the earth under deteriorating conditions owing to global competition, unionbusting and governmental indifference. Television gave us a brief glimpse into the lives of the Pennsylvania miners, revealing their faith, courage and solidarity. The incident, however, should also inform the country about the real odds that they and their fellow miners are up against.

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