In Coal Country, a Culture of Fear

April 22, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Coal miners sign A sign outside a West Virginia vigil for coal miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch explosion on April 5 (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

Charleston, W.Va. — Two weeks after the horrific explosion that killed 29 coal miners in southern West Virginia, it’s business as usual for the owner of the project.

[Environment1]Massey Energy, the Virginia-based coal giant that runs the Upper Big Branch Mine, has denied time off for miners to attend their friends’ funerals; has rejected makeshift memorials outside the mine site; and, in at least one case, required a worker to go on shift even though the fate of a relative — one of the victims of the April 5 disaster — remained unknown at the time, according to some family members and other sources familiar with those episodes. In short, the company might be taking heat for putting profits and efficiency above its workers, but it doesn’t appear to have changed its tune in the wake of the worst mining tragedy in 40 years.

“They told my husband, ‘You’ve got a job to do and you’re gonna do it,’” said the wife of one Massey miner, referring to the funerals he’s missed this month for friends who died in the blast. “What else are we gonna do?”

Such anecdotes aren’t easy to come by. Massey — the top coal producer in Appalachia — has built a reputation of intimidating its workers into a type of lock-step compliance that most often takes the form of silence, particularly when the subject revolves around safety in the company’s mines. The reason is clear: Massey is the economic engine in parts of West Virginia, and there’s a lingering fear among many workers that any grumbling could leave them unemployed. Some former employees said this week that the reluctance of Upper Big Branch miners to discuss the conditions inside those tunnels prior to the blast is no accident.

“I guarantee it: Massey’s already told these guys, ‘Hey, don’t say nothin’. You’re not talking to no reporters. You’re not saying nothin’ about our safety record — or you won’t have a job,’” said Chuck Nelson, a former Massey miner who’s since become an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “That’s the way they operate.”

Jerry Massie, field representative for the United Mine Workers of America’s District 29 branch in Beckley, echoed that message this week, saying that Massey miners are well aware of the company’s response to recalcitrance: “Take your dinner pail and get out.”

That threat of job loss — be it spoken or simply understood — has created a culture of fear in some corners of Southern West Virginia, where coal is the only real industry, and Massey is king of the hill. Indeed, in certain areas there’s simply no queen.

“The bad thing here is that Massey owns [the Upper Big Branch] mine, and they’ve got a lot of subsidiaries — little tiny outfits just all down the river,” said Denny Tyler, an electrician who has contracted with Massey and now runs a website advocating for the end to mountaintop removal. “If you get fired from one, you’re not working anywhere on Coal River. … Its a fear thing.”

In another case rankling some residents near the Upper Big Branch, a mourner this week tried to hang a wreath at the entrance to the mine. Massey wouldn’t allow it, according to several sources, and the women left in tears. Though trivial, the episode has further solidified the image of Massey as a company that bullies its workers and local communities.

It wasn’t always this way. Before Massey rose over the last several decades to become the predominant coal operator in the region, most of the area’s miners belonged to the union, affording them certain protections not enjoyed by Massey’s workers, most of whom are non-union. UMWA members didn’t fear losing their jobs, for example, if they reported a safety hazard.

“When we were all union, if there was something that came up, it wasn’t no problem at all to shut that mine down until everything was fixed.” said Nelson, who worked for nearly 20 years in union mines before Massey took over. “Non-union [workers], they ain’t got that right.”

The debate surrounding Massey is a complicated one in a coal-rich region where the balance between work and workers’ rights is nothing if not delicate. Indeed, even as some Massey families grumble about the company’s dubious safety record and cut-throat business ethic, other employees fly company flags and do the mowing in their Massey uniforms. For many, Massey is mining — and there’s an intense pride in both.

Still, Massey’s history of safety violations — including hundreds racked up at its other Appalachian projects in the last two weeks alone — has raised plenty of eyebrows in Washington in the wake of this month’s disaster. The White House, which had responded to the blast by vowing to reinspect the country’s most problematic mines, released a list of those projects Wednesday. At least eight of the 57 mines are Massey-owned.

Don Blankenship, Massey’s unapologetic CEO, has repeatedly defended the company’s safety record in the wake of the Upper Big Branch blast, most recently telling the Wall Street Journal that he’s “extremely confident that I’ve done what I could to run the company properly in every regard.”

“I’ve been here for 28 years, and we know we have the best of safety programs and the best of safety procedures,” he said.

Still, there’s evidence that, around the Upper Big Branch, Blankenship’s idea of running the company properly is rubbing some miners’ families the wrong way.

Some residents, for example, had kept vigil candles burning until all 29 miners were discovered. Now they’re keeping them lit until another milestone is reached: They’ll keep them burning, the Massey miner’s wife said, “until there’s justice.”

*Update: *A Massey spokesman responds, “We know of no instances when miners were denied a request to attend a funeral.”