Betrayal in the Mines

Death and the Mines

by Brit Hume
Grossman, 288 pp., $7.50

An ancient English ballad relates that “Toil is the lot of a coal miner’s life, and tears are the lot of a coal miner’s wife.” The naïve might suppose that in the old age of the twentieth century and after the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Crusade, the New Frontier, and the Great Society, modern technology and a heightened reverence for life would have softened the toil and wiped away some of the tears, but it is not so. Brit Hume’s matter-of-fact book jars the reader with the inescapable conclusion that in the United States today the miner’s lot is astoundingly similar to that of his forebears who brought coal to the top of pits for George III.

Most American mining occurs in Appalachia, a situation that is changing as operators shift to the vast, newly opened deposits of the far West. Among the hills of Western Pennsylvania, in a tiny scrap of Maryland, in West Virginia, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and northern Alabama, and in bleak towns on the plains of western Kentucky and Illinois live the men whose labor and fortitude produce the coal that makes possible our much vaunted standard of living. They and their sad-eyed, apprehensive wives and generally reticent children inhabit a kind of industrial outback, a vast sprawling region where practically anything goes and into which much of the sophistication and many of the refinements of contemporary civilization have never penetrated.

It is still astonishingly laissez-faire, a land where absentee owners of immense mineral deposits and the mining companies to which they lease rule states and counties through puppet officials, commit with impunity every conceivable assault against the physical environment, and evade their tax liabilities so thoroughly that long tiers of pauper counties huddle broke and impotent atop vast mineral reserves and amid endless industrial activity. The corporations treat mining men with the same contempt a farmer might reserve for his mules and shirk virtually all responsibility to provide leadership for the communities they so ruthlessly dominate.

Death and the Mines is a catalogue of betrayal interwoven with and endlessly reinforced by other betrayal to the ruin of a huge region and most of its people. As the story unfolds one marvels at the never ending duplicities, the ineffectualness of government on the rare occasions when it is aroused to action, and, most of all, at the lonely courage of the men and women who sometimes struggle against the implacable phalanx that hems them in.

The Consolidation Coal Company is the nation’s biggest coal producer and operates a mammoth mine near a tiny hamlet called Farmington in West Virginia. The officials of “Consol” were proud of Number 9, whose sprawling network of tunnels extended over thousands of acres. It produced two million tons annually and would not exhaust its reserves for a third of a century. When it blew up in a series of titanic explosions on November 20, 1968, it was like the surfacing of a dead whale: it brought…

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