By Ian Hedges
By definition, I am a West Virginian. The legacy of coal miners and the working conditions they fought for during the Battle of Blair Mountain were integral parts of my education. I don’t endorse coal or natural resource mining, but miners have a strong place in my heart. They are the parents of children whom I grew up with, they are the friendly neighbors of most of my friends and they are the bravest workers I have met. It is especially hard for most West Virginians and me to witness tragedies that involve miners.
In the last five years, we have witnessed and suffered two major mining tragedies that took the lives of 41 miners. After each incident, many West Virginians took time out of their days to remember, pray or mourn our miners.
After the most recent mining explosion in West Virginia, the blame game started but no one was taking accountability. Federal elected officials blamed federal regulators for failing to shut down the Upper Big Branch mine after it amassed approximately 1,100 safety violations in the last three years, and then these officials later demanded reform of federal oversight of coal mines — with their promises never turning into action. Then, federal regulators blamed Massey Coal company for not correcting or fixing the Upper Big Branch mine that had received 1,100 safety violations. Shortly after, Massey Coal blamed a lighting strike for causing the explosion that killed 29 of my fellow West Virginians. No one was taking accountability, and many West Virginias were cynical and frustrated that nothing was going to be done.
On Aug. 31, I entered Arica, Chile, a city covered in banners that said, “Remember the Miners” or “Support Our Miners.” For a month and a half, I saw many eyes glued to the television, waiting for new images of the miners and hoping that their rescue would be happening in the next few days. Finally, when news came that the miners would be rescued on Oct. 12, families gathered around their computers or televisions on that day to watch what they considered a historical event. As the miners were lifted up, I could hear shouts from neighbors, and my host mother began using every Chilean profanity that I knew. After the last miner was rescued the next evening, the shouting increased, fireworks crackled in the sky, car horns blared and possible gun shots filled the streets. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera called it “a rescue done with unity, hope and faith.”
The government of Chile did not hesitate to take action on this accident. Piñera and his mining minister rushed from Ecuador to attend to the miners’ families and check the situation. Days after the explosion, the government began taking safety violations seriously and started to shut down 18 mines for violating many safety regulations. After the rescue, Piñera, a center-right president, fired top mining regulators for failing to do their jobs. The Chilean president called upon an independent commission to overhaul Chile’s mining regulatory. He has also called upon the country to re-evaluate and strengthen labor conditions. Even though he might be risking future foreign investments, Piñera took action to protect miners and workers because Chile understands how important those miners are to the country.
And that is what we can learn from Chile. Gov. Joe Manchin, D-WV, should stop defending coal companies and threatening to sue the Environmental Protection Agency. He should stop worrying about what big business will think of him; instead, he should take action on protecting miners. The federal government and its regulators should take accountability for the lives of our country’s miners and start changing the way we see labor. Several major accidents have happened under our government’s watch, and nothing has changed to improve the working conditions for miners. If we don’t apply the lessons learned from Chile, then I’ll be damned as a West Virginian if I watch another tragic accident happen to miners because nothing was done.