A West Virginia Miracle?

"We did not receive the miracle we prayed for.” This is what West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin said when he announced the deaths of the last four coal miners found after the April 4 accident at the Upper Big Branch mine. But it wasn’t a miracle that they should have wanted, but responsible human action taken months before the accident ever happened. Let’s not confuse the two. The Upper Big Branch mine is owned by Massey Energy Company, which dominates West Virginia coal and politics. Its safety record is appalling, cited for 30% more violations than similar mines. But as someone on National Public Radio said this morning, mine safety in the U.S. is akin to someone being able to drink and drive without repercussion – even after they kill someone.

Back in 1985 I went to West Virginia to work with people along what’s called “Chemical Valley” to explore the kind of safety they wanted after a local Union Carbide chemical plant blew. Just eight months earlier, the sister plant in Bhopal, India, had leaked poisonous gas, killing a reportedly 15,000 people and harming 100,000 more. After the West Virginia accident, Congress enacted laws to require emergency planning and the disclosure of chemical releases. That was at least some progress.

What I discovered in West Virginia is what I discover everywhere in America: people are hard-working, fundamentally believe in capitalism, and seek pragmatic solutions to difficult problems. Oh, and one more thing – they believe in a sense of fairness and fair play.

When West Virginia is in the news, I often think about the people I met there. It’s so easy for the news media, politicians, and assorted others to turn these individuals into cartoon-like figures, and to treat their communities with a patronizing tone. When doing so, it’s easy to diminish their concerns, push aside their thoughts about how to move ahead, attempt to placate their frustrations, and even belittle their support for coal companies that provide them a life-line of needed jobs.

But the problems found in West Virginia are the kind of tough dilemmas that need attention. In such situations, there are no easy answers. There is no quick fix. Empty sound bites may fill a news hole, but do little to address the holes left in people’s hearts after their loved ones are killed in a mine accident, or an entire community is shaken by the loss of 29 miners.

I have no reason to believe that the governor of West Virginia does not care deeply about his state – he must. But it’s not a “miracle” that we should pray for in these situations, as if somehow we have no control or responsibility over our own destiny; or as if the only time to act – or to seek some kind of powerful intervention – is after the disaster. No, let’s be clear: what is required most is courageous action by people to get the job done before we find ourselves in these situations. Simply praying for a miracle is too easy.