The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

December 9, 2013

Let’s improve conditions for all coal miners

Del. Mike Caputo
Guest Column

— On Dec. 6 each year, we pause to honor our country’s coal miners, and reflect on the sacrifices those men and women have made over the course of well over 100 years.

That date was chosen because on Dec. 6, 1907,  the worst industrial accident in American history took place in the West Virginia community of Monongah. In that devastating mine explosion, at least 361 men and boys perished.

In that year alone, it is believed more than 3,000 lives were lost nationwide to mine accidents.

Miners, some boys as young as 10 years old, were treated like slaves back then, being forced to enter unspeakably hazardous conditions. Coal was vital to the economy and to people’s quality of life. It was very profitable for the companies. But no one was looking out for our most precious resource: The men who mined that coal.

It took another tragedy in West Virginia nearly 60 years later to effect any real change in the way our miners were treated.  

In my home county of Marion, the 1968 Farmington mine disaster took 78 lives. It was then that West Virginians finally said enough is enough. People should not have to go to work worrying about whether they are going to make it home to their families at the end of the day.

The widows and family members of those miners stepped forward and lobbied Congress, prompting the government to finally respond to decades of egregious working conditions and adopt the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

Last month, we held a ceremony in Farmington to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Farmington disaster. I told those in attendance that as someone who grew up in that area and remembers that tragic day all too well, all of us viewed those 78 men as heroes.

But we have many other heroes within the mining industry to honor on Miner’s Day: The thousands of hard-working coal miners who remain the backbone of West Virginia's economy.

While we remember those who have perished in accidents such as Farmington and Monongah, let’s also remember that although conditions have improved drastically over the course of the past 45 years, coal mining is still a dangerous job. It’s unacceptable that we still suffer travesties such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in Raleigh County that killed 29 miners, and that there are on average dozens of mine fatalities each year.

We must continue to work to improve safety conditions in our nation’s mines to protect the miners who keep our lights on, are pillars of their communities, and expect in return only a safe environment in which to earn a decent wage to support their families.

(Caputo, a coal miner who now serves as UMWA District 31 International Vice President, also serves as Majority Whip in the House of Delegates.)