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Down in the Pit

Harlan County, Turkey

by CLANCY SIGAL

“Don’t go down in the mine, Dad,

Dreams very often come true;

Daddy, you know it would break my heart

If anything happened to you…

“Don’t Go Down the Mine, Dad”, in honor of a South Wales mining disaster

Men and some women die for our air conditioning and central heating.  Yesterday’s  mine explosion in Soma, western Turkey, probably due to safety cost cutting, killed upwards of 300 men and probably many more.   Underground you die from being burned alive, suffocated or poisoned by fumes.  Four years ago 29 men died in West Virginia when the Upper Big Branch of Massey Energy’s mine blew up due to criminally lax safety violations.

The Turkish  association of electrical engineers said the disaster represented “murder, not an accident”. It accused the mine operators of neglect and using obsolete equipment. Inadequate ventilation systems meant carbon monoxide and other toxic gases could spread more quickly, it said.  Shades of Big Branch.

In mining, especially underground but also the pollution-crazy “open cast” (mainly in western states), deaths and injuries are routinely and unemotionally factored into a company’s balance sheet.  So much for litigation, so much for insurance.  Rarely do executives get indicted for malfeasance and no one who caused the deaths ever goes to jail.

We get nearly 40% of our energy from mainly bituminous (soft) coal from 52 mines in 25 states.  It’s a diminishing resource, which is one reason why coal companies savagely tear off the tops of ancient mountains, and dump the poisoned slurry in creeks and rivers, to extract the very last ounce of miners’ blood.  “Miners’ blood” is not hyperbole since mine owners – almost everywhere in the world, from China to Poland to India to USA – are historically among the coldest-hearted employers indifferent to human pain.  Which is one reason why coal miners, who do the actual digging in pretty terrible conditions especially underground, tend to be militant and class-and-union conscious.

Have we forgotten the 1921 Battle of Blair mountain when 10,000 armed and angry Logan county. West Virginia miners, seeking union recognition, fought an all-out war against private cops and federalized soldiers?  That’s when Harding sent in army bombers against the miners.

Almost every day I read about mine “accidents” in other parts of the world that kills workers who I feel are my brothers because I’ve been underground and have seen the raw energy and almost surgeon-like skill it takes to be a miner.  That’s another reason why coal owners hate miners – their sense of solidarity.  At the height of the Cold War, between Russia and the west, on a brink of nuclear Armageddon, I was visiting Don Bas miners from some of the deepest and most hazardous pits from presently disputed Ukraine, hug, kiss and trade sweaters with Yorkshire coal diggers who got drunk and sang songs with them, all in the same family.

From my prejudiced point of view, coal miners – yes, the producers of so much carbon dioxide emissions – are the natural aristocrats among us.  Romantic?  Maybe.  But I’ve spent days “doon pit” and it’s a lousy, dirty, stifling job.

Coal has been dug, by women and children too, lowered in buckets in shallow holes in the ground, since the Bronze Age and industrially since Roman times.

Statistics say one day coal will end as a fossil fuel.   Coal miners will fight literally to the death to save their deadly jobs.

Even when they’re most politically and religiously conservative, miners inherently tend to be fighters and even revolutionists.  (See “The Molly Maguires”, “Harlan County USA” and anything about the Asturian dinimteros).   Which is why employers and governments have an inherent tendency, like the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, to need to squash them.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives