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Unmarked graves, an ‘ugly history’: West Virginia reckons with mine safety record

Ruins of an abandoned mine
Ruins of an abandoned mine in Havaco, W.Va., near where more than 80 West Virginia coal miners who died in a mining disaster in 1912 are buried, is seen in June.
(Leah Willingham / Associated Press)
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Mayapple plants sprout in the sunken soil where the bodies lie, their leaves sheltering the unmarked graves like tiny umbrellas. The forgotten burial ground is overrun by four-wheel tire tracks near a path strewn with discarded bottles and other trash.

More than a century of overgrowth on this West Virginia hillside has erased any trace of the burial ground known locally as Little Egypt, the resting place for dozens of coal mine workers who died in a 1912 mine explosion. Most people living in McDowell County — a dwindling community that once was the world’s leading coal producer — don’t know this place exists.

“There are 80 people here that nobody has said a prayer over in a long, long time,” said Ed Evans, a former state lawmaker and retired public school teacher as he side-stepped a patch of sunken earth on a rainy summer day.

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For Evans, the burial ground is a reminder of the sacrifices by workers who inspired safety regulations when the coal industry was rapidly expanding in the early 20th century, the deadliest era for miners in U.S. history. It’s more important than ever, he said, amid a push to undo regulations as the industry declines.

West Virginia’s Republican supermajority introduced multiple bills this year that would eliminate worker protections in an attempt to bolster the shrinking coal industry, including a sweeping overhaul of the state agency that inspects coal mines.

The bill, which would strip the state of power to cite coal companies for unsafe working conditions, failed to advance after union representatives and dozens of miners came to the Capitol to testify against it.

Evans, who invoked Little Egypt in a Feb. 25 House floor speech opposing the measure, said he worries about what will happen now after many advocates of mine safety regulations, himself included, were defeated in the Nov. 8 election.

In a state where the coal industry has been severely diminished by both market economics and a shift toward cleaner energy, coal interests still wield considerable power to push back against regulation. With Republicans gaining an even tighter grip on the Legislature, lawmakers are expected to make another run at further deregulating the agency that monitors mine safety.

The scars left by the mining industry are ubiquitous in West Virginia, nowhere more so than in the southern coalfields where abandoned mine tipples tower beside mountains disfigured by long gone coal companies.

Less obvious are sites like Little Egypt, a silent monument to what Evans calls West Virginia’s “ugly history,” where vulnerable workers were exploited for profit and forgotten.

“And what do they get for their sacrifice? All these people have are the bushes that grow around them and the rattle of the coal trucks that drive by from an industry they passed away from,” he said.

Amid hollows crowded with houses darkened by coal dust, the unincorporated community of Havaco is nestled near a bridge on the Tug Fork River, across railroad tracks where trains still move tons of coal.

The unkempt dirt path to Little Egypt begins at the end of a dead-end road, hidden by sugar maples.

Buford Brown, a 73-year-old retired coal miner and Vietnam veteran, remembers seeing the graves as a child. Even then they’d started sinking into the earth.

“They didn’t care about them people years ago,” he said.

On March 26, 1912, the site was a chaotic scene of hurriedly dug graves as bodies were recovered from the depths of the Jed Coal and Coke Co. mine. The underground explosion was set off when a miner’s open-flame lamp ignited methane gas.

Many of the miners killed were European immigrants from countries such as Italy and Poland, who came to the U.S. with very little and were often recruited as they disembarked on Ellis Island.

A 1912 report by West Virginia’s Department of Mines praised the growth of the state’s mining industry, even as it said 409 people were killed in mining operations that year.

The Jed Mine employed nonunion workers. A push to organize the coalfields in the ensuing years led to the 1912-21 West Virginia mine wars, the area’s first major effort to unionize.

In the decades that followed, safety regulations gradually increased, often precipitated by disasters. In 1969, the U.S. government passed a law requiring four federal mine safety inspections per year, in addition to four by state inspectors.

GOP lawmakers who sponsored the failed bill to eliminate state penalties for safety violations said that the existence of federal inspectors made state inspectors redundant, and that companies might feel freer to bring up concerns about safety violations if they weren’t at risk of being fined.

Under current law, companies can face thousands of dollars in fines and even prison time for failing to implement safety measures. The state can also close down portions of a mine, or even an entire mine.

When he took to the House floor to decry the bill, Evans recalled the miners who lost their lives because of lax safety in West Virginia coal mines — and he spoke of the burial ground called Little Egypt.

“We forgot about them,” he said of the men and boys buried in Havaco. “Are we going to forget about today’s miners too?”

Last year, 10 people died while working in coal mines across the U.S., including six in West Virginia.

Mike Hairston, 75, lives near the shaft of the old Jed Mine and the graveyard. He is the last of four generations of Hairston men to work the mines.

He’s known about Little Egypt since he was a child but when his generation is gone, he said, it will be forgotten. “Hardly anyone here knows about it now,” he said.

As Evans gazed at the burial plots, rain cascading over the hood of his jacket, he offered a brief prayer.

“They didn’t get the recognition they deserved at the time,” he said. “What they got were these laws that were put in place to prevent disasters like this from happening again.”

“The mine safety laws are written in blood. They’re all written in blood.”


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