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Robert Rupp

THE SAGO mine in West Virginia is identified with tragedy. Now the governor wants to associate it with safety. Joe Manchin said he hopes the state investigation of the Sago disaster will serve as a catalyst for more effective mine safety, not just in the state but also in the nation.

He’s echoing not just the belief of my grandmother that “good can come out of bad,” but also the thesis of British historian Oliver MacDonagh, who says disasters can trigger innovation and protective legislation. He contends that the key ingredients to industrial reform are public outrage and political leadership.

Certainly MacDonagh’s model worked for the 1968 Farmington mine disaster when national attention led to decisive action on the federal level — the Clean Air and Mining Act. Congressman Ken Hechler of West Virginia was the prime mover for this important legislation. At one point, he arranged for a widow who had lost her husband in the accident to come to Washington. She camped outside the Nixon White House to help bring attention to the proposed bill that would become the biggest reform in mining history.

There was little active response to the Buffalo Creek disaster that devastated a mountain valley in 1972. In that instance, most state authorities assumed a defensive stance, which undermined efforts at both accountability and constructive action. They framed the event as a natural disaster and appeared protective of Pittston Coal Co. and fearful that an investigation would result in poor publicity for the state.

Manchin has taken a different approach. He hopes that a thorough investigation will discover what happened at Sago, and lead to action to make future Sago tragedies less likely. He appears to recognize that the black ribbons being displayed across Upshur County need to be followed by bold actions. If Manchin is correct, the legacy of Sago will be improved protection for miners below the surface.

It is an ambitious goal. Over the decades, many well-intentioned efforts have been undermined by the timidity of committees, the procrastination of bureaucracies and the strength of special interests.

But there is hope that the July deadline will be met and its recommendations will be implemented. According to the MacDonagh model, the attention and outrage needed for reform is already present as millions of Americans have focused on Sago.

And now the state has a governor who appears ready to act. As a Farmington native, the governor brings a personal history and intensity to the project. He also realizes that only positive action can promote a more positive image of the state.

Manchin’s effort is aided by the appointment of Davitt McAteer, a Marion County native who was a former MSHA chief in the Clinton administration.

A century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln argued that we need to “think anew” because “dogmas of the past” are no longer sufficient for the volatile present. It appears that McAteer, the appointed head of the Sago investigation, comes to his task with a similar attitude. He observes that the equipment and the strategies of the past may no longer be sufficient for the present.

McAteer also pointed out the need to examine security protections already implemented abroad, such as location devices used in some Australian mines. His viewpoint reflects what events at Sago confirmed, that mining is a worldwide industry. We saw this in the flowers that came from Canadian miners and a reporter sent from Poland.

When a colleague who teaches state history at Wesleyan heard of Manchin’s hopes for the state investigation, he said that the governor deserves an “A” for effort. But we will have to wait until July 1 and beyond to see if the governor deserves an “A” for execution. And we will have to wait even longer to see the response of the coal industry.

This industry used technology to mine more coal with fewer miners in the latter part of the 20th century. Will it use technology in the first part of the 21st century to protect those miners more effectively?

Dr. Rupp is a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, a few miles north of the mine disaster site.


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