A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

Jack Spadaro

images/voice_uploads/Circle.Spadero.gif">Jack Spadaro was a young engineer in February 1972 when he arrived at the site of a coal waste dam failure that killed 125 people. He had grown up in coal country, and had worked in the mines to get through college. Even so, he was shocked. “I made a pledge to dedicate my life to doing whatever I could to prevent this type of thing from happening again.” His work with the Governor¹s Commission of Inquiry Into the Buffalo Creek Flood was exemplary, and he went on to work with the state DNR’s division of Coal Refuse and Dam Control. By the 1990s, he had become the nation’s top mine safety trainer, serving as superintendant of the MSHA’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy.

But when another dam broke in Martin County, KY, in October of 2000, his insistence on a full investigation earned the enmity of the Bush administration. That spill was one of the worst environmental disasters east of the Mississippi, and Spadaro insisted that Massey Energy Inc. should be held accountable for not taking steps it was legally required to take. Instead, Spadaro was forced into retirement. Although soft-spoken in person, Spadaro can be brutally candid. “This is the most lawless administration I’ve ever encountered,” he told Robert Kennedy Jr. in his book Crimes Against Nature in 2004. “They have no regard for protecting miners or the people in mining communities... The corruption and lawlessness goes right to the top.” Spadaro’s honors include the Jenco Foundation Award for Service to Humanity in Appalachia, the Chuck Chambers Public Service Award of the West Virginia Environmental Council, and the Helen Lewis Community Service Award of the Appalachian Studies Association.

We reached Mr. Spadaro in late February, 2006:

Q. How did you become interested in the problem of mine safety?

A: I grew up in southern West Virginia, and I’ve worked all my life in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia. I know the people in these communities pretty well, and it became my life work to try to do something for them. I didn’t know where my career was going to lead me. It began with the Farmington disaster in 1968. I had been in that mine just months before the explosion, and later I was doing a study on the cause of the Buffalo Creek disaster. And I found there was a way I could use my knowledge of mining engineering to do something I hoped would benefit the people of this region.

Q: When you turned in your report on Buffalo Creek, how was it received? Has the climate of mine safety regulation changed over the years?
After the Buffalo Creek report was released, new legislation and regulations governing coal waste disposal were implemented in WV. Mine safety improved dramatically from the early 1970s until now because of the federal Mine Safety & Health Acts of 1969 and 1977. Unfortunately the same thing cannot be said regarding the environmental effects of mining. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 has never been effectively enforced. The states and the federal government have allowed widespread abuses that have tragic consequences in the coalfields. The massive valley fills that are used in mountaintop removal operations are destroying Appalachian forests and streams and the mountaintops are being lost forever.

Q: What do you think of new mine safety legislation passed by the state of West Virginia this winter of 2006?

A: I think that’s good legislation. It should have been enacted a long time ago. My problem with that legislation is that it’s not preventive. It’s to take care of problems with emergencies after they have happened. Providing additional sources of oxygen for miners is a really good idea; providing a way to locate miners and communicate with them is a really good idea. But that technology has been around for at least 20 to 25 years. We’ve known for years that one hour of oxygen wasn’t enough to make certain that people escape. That legislation should have been enacted at the federal level years ago. I’m glad it’s finally happening. It’s a shame it took the tragedy at Sago to cause it.

I’m more interested in preventive legislation. For instance, the MSHA allowed a rule change in 2004 allowing intake air on belt lines. It was a terrible mistake; it already resulted in the deaths of two miners at Alma No. 1 mine in Logan county. We need to reverse that rule.
There were quite a few safety rules, 17 in all, that were proposed by the Clinton administration but tabled by Bush. One involved testing for the combustibility of belts in mines; they would have set standards for belt lines that couldn’t catch on fire. Also, there needs to be more attention to seals and strength of seals. It may turn out to be an issue at Sago mine. Apparently they were using five p.s.i. seals, lower than the standard now.
The Bush administration has created an environment in which most of the inspectors -- and of course [they] do want to do their jobs, they are very committed people – but most of the inspectors are hampered by policies and procedures that have been implemented in the past five years by the Bush administration. I know one inspector who, to make the numbers, will sometimes leave for work at 3 in morning and not come back until 6 or 7 p.m. that day. Many inspectors are being stretched to the limit. The agency is short about 160 inspectors. For inspectors trying to do their jobs, they don’t have resources unless they make personal sacrifice.
Two weeks before the Sago disaster, someone inside said the [MSHA] agency was in such chaotic condition that he feared there would be another disaster. There were over 208 violations at Sago Mine in one year. Quite a few were serious and substantial violations. A number of orders were issued on sections of mine, but the whole mine was allowed to keep operating. This is part of the Bush administration policy. That mine should have been closed. If there is a pattern of violations, there is a provision in the mine safety act to close a mine. That wasn’t invoked by the agency at Sago. And it would have required action by MSHA headquarters in Washington.

Q. How does the danger of underground mining compare to surface mining and mountain-top removal?

A. In fact, MTR is dangerous. There are two things happening. First, there is environmental damage, and damage to people downstream. I’m involved in a case where thousands of people are suing several hundred mining and landholding companies because of flood damage. Many people are discouraged with the courts but I think its one place we still need to keep trying. In the years from late 1990s, to 2005, there have been about seven periods of flash flooding in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Fourteen people have died in those flash floods.

Secondly, the people who work on mountaintop removal, the guys who drill and drive trucks, are getting lung diseases at an alarming rate, especially silicosis and black lung. Many people, especially the drillers, have advanced cases of silicosis.

Q. So, overall, surface mining is not safer?
A. At least 50 to 60 percent of accidents occur in surface mines. It’s one of first things I studied when I went to work for MSHA in 1996. There are an alarming number of accidents in surface mines, and easily half of the fatalities. There are large trucks running over smaller vehicles, brake failures, and so on. There was a recent one in West Virginia where a bulldozer cut into a gas line and caused an explosion that killed a miner. There are plenty of serious, terrible accidents on the surface line. Easily half or more of the accidents are in surface mining. So for people to say surface mining is safer is really inaccurate. Its not. The industry does not have a good record. It’s a cheaper way to mine, and that’s why they do it.

Q. Can the mining companies afford to make more investments in safety?

The price of coal has gone up dramatically past couple of years. At one mine site they make hundreds of millions of dollars a year profit.
One of the reasons they make coal waste impoundments [such as the one that failed at Buffalo Creek or the one threatening an elementary school at Marsh Fork] is that it saves a dollar a ton in processing. But there are other technologies, such as dry filter press systems. Coal impoundments are not at all necessary. There’s been technology around since the 1960s available to industry. It would only cost about a dollar a ton more.

Q. Its shocking that it would cost so little to make these surface mines so much safer.

A. I’m not shocked. Everything the industry does is profit driven. Everything the industry does to the welfare of people of these regions is not a shock to me at all. I’ve seen it my whole professional career. Overall the industry simply doesn’t give a damn about the people or the environment in this region. And I can say that with authority.

Q. What do you think about restoration of mountain top removal land?

I can tell you that maybe at best one to two percent of the land mined by mountaintop removal has been used for shopping center or schools. It’s a very small percentage for a supposedly higher and better use. There are millions of acres of land that have not been used for anything to benefit the community. They’ve just created these wastelands.

Reforestation has not had a lot of success. Now they are trying to weaken the standards to create looser soils to generate tree growth. I don’t know if that’s advisable. It might create unstable soil conditions. There are experimental plots going in now, but they are a very, very small percentage, one tenth of one percent of all the mountaintop removal land. The law says it is supposed to be returned to it’s approximate original contour. It’s supposed to have effective vegetative cover. That’s not happening. We’re getting rocky soil and land that will grow only grasses. This land once had thousands of species of plants, 150 tree species, and countless others. Now vast areas grow only grass, and that’s it.

Q. What are the biggest obstacles to safe mines and justice for miners?

A. Its going to take people continuing to demonstrate and litigate, take back their communities against unsafe and damaging mining. And it’s already starting to happen. These people who are being arrested are the people who have deep roots in Appalachia. All of them come from coal mining families. Some of the women in Sylvester [Boone County, W.Va. who participated in protests] had husbands who died of black lung disease. They are not just folks who are agitating for no reason. Their very lives are threatened by these operations, by the blasts, the dust, the flooding. They are all real. We have documented many times over that the roots of the flooding in Appalachia is directly related to these unstable mining operations. So the people who are protesting are folks who are living there, and have been living there for generations, and they have every right to protest. Some of these folks have had families in these regions long before coal mining began.

Q. There are calls for young people to come to West Virginia, to the Mountain Justice Summer demonstrations and participate in non-violent action. Some say these are this generation’s Freedom Riders. What do you think?

A. I see it that way too. That’s the kind of movement it’s got to become for this kind of mining to be stopped. And people are disturbed by it. We’re losing one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. These forests are home to hundreds of tree species and bird species, thousands of plant species that we’re destroying every day. We cant let it keep happening. Not only is it destroying plant and animal species, its destroying communities of human beings.

Q What projects are you working on now?

A. I’m mainly working with environmental groups and serving as an expert witness in court cases. These mostly involve surface health and safety. You do what you can where you are. My wife, who runs the Pine Mountain settlement school, the environmental education school in Harlan county Kentucky, says she’s just trying to do some good with her life. I hope that’s what I’ve been able to do, I hope overall I’ve been able to do that. Yes, you can get discouraged, but I find myself here, and intend to stay here to do what I can to protect this precious place on earth.

It’s a place with some pretty good people in it, and its my home.

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