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I wrote Trails in the Sand in 2013, two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The two events occurred within two weeks of one another and killed a total of forty men. Both tragedies could have been prevented if safety standards had been in place and enforced. The book uses both events as the backdrop to the disasters occurring in the lives of the main characters as families mourn and oil gushes from the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Lives were lost unnecessarily and wildlife and their habitats were threatened. And are still threatened to this day.
Last week, the CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of “conspiring to violate federal safety standards,” which led to the death of twenty-nine men. This is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one-year in prison. He was exonerated on three felony charges. It seems to be a ‘slap on the wrist,’ but it is the first time that a major coal executive has ever been held accountable for decisions made at the top of the chain that impacted the workers far below the earth, who put their lives in jeopardy every single day. To read more about Blankenship and his date with the jury, go to the New York Times article.
Someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to know that when regulations are in place, they must be followed or there are consequences. Someone must enforce the regulations.
I maintained in Trails in the Sand that we will not be able to live without the energy and fuel from coal and petroleum, but we don’t have to retrieve them in a way that endangers human and animal life and their habitats. Yet it happens and those responsible are rarely asked to pay for their crimes.
There are forty families in the United States who will celebrate the holidays this year for the sixth time without a member of their family because of greed and the quest to bring us gas for our cars and electricity for our homes.
Here’s an excerpt from Trails in the Sand from two different chapters – one a factual recounting of mining disasters in the U.S., and the other from the main character, as she and her husband travel to West Virginia to visit family members directly impacted by the mine disaster.
History of coal mining disasters in the United States
Wildlife exhibits the first signs, acting as the harbinger of coming environment disasters. Coal miners knew it to be true. That’s why in the earliest days of coal mining, the miners would take a caged canary down into the mines with them. This small songbird could detect the smallest quantities of methane and carbon monoxide. If the canary kept singing, the mine was deemed safe. If the singing stopped, the canary keeled over, and the miners escaped.
The early miners in West Virginia in the 1880s were mostly European immigrants and African-Americans, and they served a sort of peonage in those early mines. They rented or bought their own equipment and lived in company houses, and their pay went to the company store for food. It was a hard life, during the day and during the night. The fear of death never left their doorstep because the owners of those mines did nothing to ensure the safety of those workers. West Virginia’s safety record was one of the worst in the nation, and that distinction was sealed in 1907 when the worst mine disaster in history occurred on December 6 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. Methane most likely ignited coal dust in two mines, killing at least 400 men, if not 500. Now it’s an accepted fact that to keep coal dust from becoming combustible, it needs to be coated with lime. Rumblings among the families of the victims at Upper Big Branch hinted that more than one hundred years later coal dust sometimes accumulated because Massey was cutting corners, and not enough workers were available to make sure the lime was applied to keep the dust levels low. When the workers went down into the mine on April 5, 2010, more than one hundred years after the disaster in Monongah, a caged canary might have warned the miners to the danger lurking in the air.
We left for West Virginia early on Friday morning with coffee mugs filled and snacks packed in the cooler. We planned to be at Simon’s parents in Morgantown sometime before 9 p.m. As we drove we listened to NPR when we could, but at times, especially driving through South Carolina, it was difficult to find any station not broadcasting country songs.
As we sped up I-95 through a small bit of Georgia, we heard a commentator remark on how large corporations such as BP and Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and even citations.
“We can point the finger at the companies all we want, but why wasn’t the government enforcing the regulations?” I asked at one point. “It took twenty-nine miners to die for the mine safety folks to suggest that perhaps they should be using the powers granted to them decades ago.”
“Our greed for energy, as cheap and as quickly as we can pull it out of the ground, fuels the energy companies to bring it to us fast and cheap,” Simon said.
“It sure looks as if both disasters could have been prevented with a little more precaution,” I said.
Simon and his family moved to Calico in 1974, so Bob McDermott, Simon’s father, could take a job teaching at nearby University of Florida. When my father-in-law retired a couple of years ago, Simon’s parents did a reversal of what most folks did; they moved back to Morgantown, almost two hours south of Pittsburgh.
“I’ve never understood why your folks moved back to West Virginia,” I said as the wildflowers of spring streaked by us in the median of the highway.
“They never stopped missing that part of the country,” Simon said. “I’d move back, too, if it wasn’t for the winters.”
“You’d move back alone,” I said. “I’m a Florida girl, born and bred. You’re lucky you got me to come back to north Florida after living in the Everglades for so long.”
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Don’t worry. I’ve no desire to move back to coal country,” Simon said.
My family had its own history with the coal mines. My grandfather, Arthur Stokley, came from England in the 1920s to work in the mines of West Virginia, right near where the explosion occurred. He escaped a life underground in the mines by the grace of God and the owner of the mine where he worked. My family never said much about his life prior to becoming a worshipped doctor in Calico, but the story always intrigued me. It was probably one reason I wanted to write about this latest disaster. I read enough to know that not many young people ever found the means to leave the mines all those years ago when the miners lived in company towns. The conditions left them beholden to the mining companies raking in the dough while the workers lived in cobbled together houses huddled close to the mines.
“I’ve often wondered about my grandfather and how he managed to escape the life of a miner to become a respected doctor,” I said. “He came to this country penniless.”
“Wasn’t there some story about a canary in the mine he brought back to life?”
“I never believed that one. And why would that make him such a hero? Didn’t they take those canaries down in the mine knowing full well they’d die if the gas fumes were too strong?”
“Maybe he slept with someone important,” Simon said.
“Right. The Queen of England, perhaps. Except when he left his mother country, there was a King in charge over there.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
In honor of the men who died in both disasters in 2010, Trails in the Sand is available for free downloads on Kindle this week, December 8, 9, and 10. In addition, if you still enjoy reading real books you can hold in your hands, please leave a comment here, and I’ll send the first two requesters an autographed copy of Trails.