EDITOR’S NOTE: Forty years ago today the second of two methane explosions ripped through the Scotia coal mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, killing 11 people. The men were in the mine to make repairs from an earlier explosion, just two days before, that had killed 15 miners. In 2010, when the state dedicated a historical marker near the mine, documentary filmmaker Mimi Pickering wrote this remembrance. This article originally appeared in the Daily Yonder March 19, 2010.
On March 9, 2010, a crowd of around 300 gathered in the lot next to the small house that serves as the Scotia Employees Association headquarters for a memorial ceremony. We were in the far southeastern corner of Kentucky to witness the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the Scotia Mine Disaster of 1976 and the 26 coal miners who died there in two explosions within two days.
On March 9, 34 years ago, we got word in Whitesburg of an explosion at Scotia. The mine employed a lot of local men. It paid good wages, but everyone knew Scotia was “gassy” and a dangerous place to work. We weren’t reporters, but as documentary filmmakers we figured we had some responsibility to cover a disaster taking place in our own county.
I was only 23, but sadly this was not my first coalmine related tragedy. I had just completed a documentary on the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood, a horrendous West Virginia disaster in which 125 men, women and children were killed when a dam collapsed due to coal company negligence.
It was a gray, drizzling afternoon in 1976 when we drove Highway 119 up and over Pine Mountain past the Oven Fork post office to where the Scotia Mine road joins the highway. Family, friends and neighbors of Scotia miners were gathered near the road, where a gate and guardhouse prevented entry to all but police and various officials. No one knew what exactly had happened in the mine. There had been an explosion. Everyone knew that much. But no one knew who was trapped inside. As the hours passed a trickle of miners walked down the mine road to the highway, their faces black with coal dust, their wives sobbing as they ran to embrace them. They said they were ok. They weren’t working the section where the explosion had taken place. They were alive.
Among the family and friends gathered at the mine gate were Scotia miners, past and present. As we waited they talked about conditions in the mine with reporters from our local paper The Mountain Eagle (including DY Editor Bill Bishop). “There’s not enough air there,” said one six-year Scotia veteran. “There’s never been enough air in there.”
Underground coal mines are built so that fresh air is pulled in from the outside and then sweeps through the mine. Every coal mine produces natural gas, but in properly ventilated mines, the gas is diluted and forced out.
The Scotia mine produced a lot of gas and needed a very good ventilation system. On the day of the first explosion, however, this miner was telling us that a federal mine inspector had been in the mine the day before and given the company three notices for insufficient ventilation.
“They got the ventilation up by yesterday evening but they did it by shunting air from other sections to the southeast,” the miner said. “They do that every time an inspector comes in.” The mine didn’t have good air and so the company was monkeying with the ventilation system, stealing air from some parts of the mine to ventilate the section where the federal inspector was making measurements.
As the dreary afternoon turned to foggy dusk and then black night, we stood in the cold and rain and waited. Network news crews arrived, wondering where in God’s green acres they had been sent, and primarily concerned that the damp night air would ruin their hair before they did their standups (and these were men).
More than 12 hours after the explosion, the names of the 15 miners trapped inside were released. By 1:30 am the last body was found and it was announced that all were dead. Their average age was 27 years. At dawn, hearses dispatched from every funeral home in Letcher and Harlan counties carried their bodies away.
I went home, numb with cold and sadness but also angry. It was just like Buffalo Creek. Once again laws intended to protect miners had been violated or ignored in the push for production, and lives had been sacrificed.
Unbelievably, two days later, on March 11, a second methane explosion ripped through the mine killing 11 members of a work crew, including three federal inspectors, who had been sent inside to begin repairs. By the end of the week, 26 men had died at Scotia.
So here we were 34 years later gathered in Oven Fork for a long overdue public recognition of the disaster. The prayers and speeches were for the most part somber and muted, describing the deep hurt the community continues to feel and hopeful that some good had come out of the tragedy. Several of the victims’ family members mentioned the legislation that had passed in 1977 to increase mine safety and better train and protect the miner.
Maybe Scotia was a lesson that had been learned.
Any illusions that coal mining today is a kinder and gentler occupation were dashed just a few hours later at a Whitesburg meeting on the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s newly announced program to stop black lung disease. Dr. Gregory Wagner, MSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, and Anita Moore, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath, explained the urgency.
MSHA/NIOSH studies find that for the last 10 years both the rate and number of U.S. coal miners with black lung disease have been rising, reversing decades of steep decline that came from safety standards imposed in the 1970s.
In addition, the severity of the disease and the rapidity of its progression are increasing, and black lung disease is occurring more frequently among younger miners. Officials cited a number of possible causes for these increases; Dr. Wagner said that coal operators’ commitment to maintaining low dust levels “isn’t what it should have been.”
At the hearing these statistics came to life as middle-aged men tethered to oxygen tanks and pulling aside breathing masks to speak described the debilitating smothering that defines the disease and the years they had spent fighting coal company efforts to deny them compensation. A miner who is still working said he had been employed by good companies, but far too many that he had worked for cut corners, never adequately controlling the dust or the ventilation until the day the mine inspector came.
His words took me back 34 years to the people waiting at the Scotia Mine gate.
The Scotia memorial and MSHA hearing took place in the midst of a multi-million dollar public relations campaign by the coal industry to convince everyone — from our federal, state and local politicians to the very youngest school children — that there is a “war on coal.” The overwhelming message in coal country is that efforts to regulate or reduce the mining and burning of coal must be stopped, that coalmining is our future, the only possible future we can hope for.
This “war on coal” campaign has succeeded in badly frightening our people, people who already fear they are close to losing what little they have. And with the fear comes a growing hostility towards those who speak out, even timidly, against coal industry abuses of the land or the people.
As I reflected on the all too avoidable tragedy of the Scotia Disaster and the mine disasters before and after it, on the more common individual fatalities and disabling injuries, and on the more than 10,000 miners who have died from black lung in the past 10 years, I can’t but wonder how we got here. How can people be put in such a position that they feel they must fight to preserve an industry that is killing them? Literally. Around here it’s called being between a rock and a hard place.
Mimi Pickering is a filmmaker who lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky.