Speak Your Piece: Coalfield Justice at Last?

West Virginians and other residents of the Appalachian coalfields are watching the historic proceedings against the former head of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship. 

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A message from the Rural Assembly

Blankenship has denied the charges, but three men involved in the case lower on the corporate ladder have already been convicted and sentenced to prison.

Details contained in the indictment may surprise outsiders, but to those of us born and raised in the coalfields, the reign of such “Kings of Coal” is nothing new.  The exposure of this coal baron’s deeds is but a tip of the iceberg of what goes on behind closed doors when money, power and politics are at stake.

Indictment of this powerful, rich coal operator was a day of reckoning for many residents of the Appalachian coalfields. They hold their breath waiting for the result.  Will justice prevail and laws already in place be obeyed? Will the federal government enforce safety laws regardless of money and political connections? 

In West Virginia that may be too much to expect.  I have seen the struggles of the coal miner. My own family, friends and neighbors are coal miners.  I speak from my heart.  I hurt for miners.  I believe miners deserve better. I fear if I say too much about absentee landowners, greedy coal barons or politics, someone will lose a job or even get hurt. But the long, violent history of the miners in the Appalachian coalfields chronicles their unfair treatment.

My dad worked in the coal mines. He was so tall, over 6’3”, and the coal was low.  The circumstances were difficult and he left the coal mines and began cutting posts to mine-roof supports.  He ended up with a bad back and black lung.  Although he moved us out of the Southwest Virginia coalfields to West Virginia, he did not want my five brothers to become miners.  He packed up my three brothers who lived at home at this time, his hunting dogs, guns and my mother, along with the family Bible, and headed west.

One of the last coal-mining deaths of 2014 occurred on December 16 at Patriot Coal Company’s Highland No. 9 mine near Henderson, Kentucky.  The young miner, Eli Eldridge, only 34 years old, was struck and killed by a coal hauler – a long, flat motorized car that hauls coal to the feeder.

The death toll for 2014 is complete. But that’s only because the year is over. What will this new year bring?

Betty Dotson-Lewis is the author of “Appalachia, Spirit Triumphant,”, “Sago Mine Disaster (Featured Story) Appalachian Coalfield Stories,” “The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots,” and co-author of “The Girl from Stretchneck Holler, Inside Appalachia.”

A message from the Rural Assembly

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