Upper Big Branch, five years on

As we all celebrated Easter Sunday yesterday, 29 families observed the fifth anniversary of the death of their loved ones in one of the biggest mine disasters to happen on U.S. soil in decades. The Upper Big Branch Mine explosion happened April 5, 2010. It was the day after Easter that year.

In the days and weeks that followed, we learned that mine owner Massey Energy had been cited repeatedly for safety violations at the mine, and that these citations had resulted in absolutely no change in any operating procedure that almost surely could have averted the tragedy.

Coal boss Don Blankenship — who at the time was a powerful, larger-than-life figure who dominated West Virginia business and culture like a titan — is currently awaiting trial, set to begin April 20. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to violate safety standards, falsifying coal dust samples and defrauding federal financial regulators.

I’ve blogged before about Blankenship and the Upper Big Branch disaster, here. Let’s pray for the families of the 29 miners who died five years ago.

“This Land Is Home to Me,” 40 years on

this landTomorrow, February 1, marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of This Land Is Home to Me, a historic pastoral letter by the bishops of the Appalachian region of the United States. OSV Newsweekly has just published a new article I’ve written about the origins of that letter, its impact on the U.S. Catholic Church and the region, and its enduring legacy. It’s in this week’s print edition and here on the OSV website.

You can find the full text of This Land Is Home to Me here (the link opens a .pdf). At the same link, you’ll also find At Home in the Web of Life, the letter the Appalachian bishops released in 1995, to mark This Land‘s twentieth anniversary. Both documents are well worth a look.

On This Land‘s anniversary, I’d also point you to “A Judgment upon Us All,” an article of mine published by Commonweal almost two years ago, which offers a more personal and on-the-ground perspective on the issues addressed by This Land. Finally, you’ll find a selection of other reflections and comments on Appalachian poverty that I’ve offered on this blog by clicking here.


Sisters in America: Thank you!

This morning brought the release of a long-awaited “Final Report” of a historic Vatican investigation of every community of Catholic sisters in the United States. That investigation — as John Allen, Jr. points out in this helpful article — began in 2008 with criticism by Vatican officials of American nuns having a “secular mentality.”

Today, we read in the report that “Since the early days of the Catholic Church [in the United States], women religious have courageously been in the forefront … selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals.” We also read of “the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the Church and society.”

Amen to that.

A few months ago, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh (a long-time communications director for the U.S. bishops’ conference) suggested that the most appropriate feedback that the Vatican could probably offer to the American women religious is simply to say “Thank you.” It seems that the Vatican has decided that was good advice. That’s what I call good discernment.

Anyway, when I read those passages from the report I quoted above, they brought to mind a little essay that I had published here on this blog over two years ago. On the occasion of the anniversary of the arrival in 1727 of the first religious sisters, a group of Ursuline nuns, on American shores, I took the Ursulines’ presence here as emblematic of a much broader history. I figured that today might be a good occasion to point it out here again. Here ’tis.


“Sisters in America”

Here’s an anniversary that generally passes unnoticed, though perhaps recent ecclesial developments demand that attention, this year, be paid. On August 6, 1727, a ship named La Gironde docked at New Orleans. Among the passengers who disembarked, after a difficult six-month journey from France, was a group of twelve Ursuline sisters: the very first Catholic religious sisters in “the New World.”

Be careful of the New Orleans you imagine. The village had been founded less than a decade earlier and was described by a visitor in 1721 as a collection of a hundred wretched hovels amidst a swampy land infested by alligators and snakes. Before the year was out, the sisters had founded a rudimentary school for girls. It would become Ursuline Academy, which is today the oldest continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. Before long, the sisters also established an orphanage and began holding classes for African slave and Native American girls. One of the original group, Sister Francis Xavier Hebert, became the first woman pharmacist on these shores.

Of course, the Ursulines would be joined in ministry by many other women of many other religious communities. The Ursulines are by no means the most numerous nor the most well-known of them. But their history and their work serves as a window into the American experience and as an indication of the place that women religious have held in American life and culture.

One of the most notorious expressions of the anti-Catholic nativism that held a grip on American society in the early nineteenth century has the Ursulines at center stage. On August 11, 1834, a crowd of angry citizens attacked the Ursuline convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, then a working class town across the harbor from Boston. Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) had recently passed through the area offering a series of fiery speeches about a papal plot to take control of America. As the sisters fled into the night, the mob set fire to the convent and cheered as it burned to the ground.

(The incident also, it might be noted, offers a picture of the tough and feisty side of many American sisters that many Catholics even today will recognize. An eyewitness account of the evening’s events reports that as the threatening crowds gathered around the convent, the mother superior appeared at one of the windows and warned, “The bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them!”)

In the 1880’s Ursuline sisters joined Jesuit priests in Montana, in the Rocky Mountain Missions. Sometimes with the help of funding from Saint Katherine Drexel and her sister Elizabeth, they established churches and schools, many still in operation today, to reach and serve the native American population.

In 1980, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel was one of four American women raped and murdered in El Salvador by members of a military bent on extinguishing the work of the Church there. Dorothy had worked for six years in the country, teaching, catechizing, and doing ordinary parish work. When that nation’s civil war began in 1977, she offered support and comfort to war refugees and widows and mothers who had lost sons. To a family member who urged her to consider returning to the United States, she wrote, “I could not leave Salvador, especially now … I am committed to the persecuted Church here.”

Of course, throughout the nearly three centuries since those twelve sisters stepped off La Gironde, thousands of other Ursulines have engaged in ministries, mostly educational, that rarely gets recounted but has contributed richly to the Church and to society in America. Catholic Charities USA recognized it earlier this year by presenting the prioress of the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans, Sister Carla Dolce, OSU, with a Centennial Medal, recognizing her community’s important contributions to the reduction of poverty in the United States.

I saw it myself during two years living in Mingo County, West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian poverty, in the lives and ministries of Ursuline sisters Brendan Conlon and Janet Peterworth. They founded and directed two nonprofit agencies that have served, educated, and empowered residents there for nearly twenty years. The two women, now retired, reminded their staffs almost daily that the reason for the work they did was to serve Christ present in the poor, as he himself insisted we do.

Today the Ursulines in America struggle with dwindling numbers, dwindling income, and an aging community. In this way, too, they represent so many other American religious communities.

Though it’s unfortunate that the August 6 anniversary will pass unnoticed by most Americans, it’s not surprising. The work of religious sisters in America has been underappreciated and largely overlooked for nearly three centuries, even within the Church. The anniversary provides an apt moment to offer them—and the Lord—a big thank you.

West Virginia gets redder

This new article at The Daily Beast on West Virginia politics is as true as true can be. I saw the shift that Michael Tomasky describes here happening first hand during my two years there, and clearly it has continued to gain strength since my departure in 2011. It’s sad in many ways, because it represents a state full of people in a precarious situation turning their backs on their own best interests, at the behest of a few powerful (and rich) voices.

Tomasky writes:

So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.


The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.

The southern part of the state, which is where I lived, is indeed in real trouble, and the people do indeed know it. And yet, rather than looking around them, looking to the horizon where new opportunities and untried options may await, most local and regional leaders have chosen to hunker down, to circle the wagons, the demand faithfulness to the status quo, and to paint those who wish to think bigger as traitors.

In a word, that means pledging fealty to King Coal. Loyalty to the coal industry is the one thing necessary, the sine qua non of politics and culture. And it will condemn the state and its people to (even greater) irrelevance a generation from now, unless something changes.

Tomasky’s entire article, here, is worth a look.

“Blood on his hands”: Don Blankenship

Overlooking Williamson, West Virginia — the Mingo County seat and the town I called home for two years — there is a tall house built in the middle of a bald spot at the top of an otherwise forest-covered mountain. From almost anywhere in town you can look up and see that house, and the house surely affords a complete, nearly map-like view of the entire region. From our first days in Williamson, well before we knew who lived there, my kids took to calling that house “the castle.”

“The castle,” it turned out, belonged to Don Blankenship, a name that we would come to know well. You don’t live in central Appalachia without knowing it well. Until very recently, Blankenship was the CEO of the largest coal company of the region, Massey Energy, and one of the most powerful people in central Appalachian business and politics. Vanity Fair once called Blankenship “the Snidely Whiplash of coal, a larger-than-life figure so swaggering and creepy that his each next outrageous claim as chairman and C.E.O. of Massey Energy makes wonderful copy.”

One thing you have to understand is that coal is just about the only source of real jobs in Mingo County. If you don’t work in coal — or, if you’re lucky, in one of the tiny schools or hospitals of the area — you’re probably not making a living (and many, many people are not). There are several — though fewer all the time — coal companies in the area, but the titan among them was Massey. And Blankenship was the very prominent, very powerful face of Massey. Living up at the top of that hill, Blankenship was regarded among many local people as a sort of heavy-handed but benevolent Santa Claus, and by a few as a malevolent overlord. Like him or not, though, you knew he held the county in the palm of his hand.

Blankenship was responsible for crippling the United Mine Workers union in central Appalachia in the 1980s. More recently, he has been the most prominent and vocal defender of mountaintop removal mining (by which the coal is extracted from a mountain not by digging into it, but by blasting the top off of it). He was caught vacationing on the French Riviera with a WV Supreme Court justice who was in the midst of deciding a major suit against his company.

Finally, as Massey CEO, Blankenship presided over the most horrific mine disaster in living memory, the fourth anniversary of which fell this weekend. It happened on April 5, 2010, at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, WV, killing 29 miners.

I was living in Mingo County at the time, and I remember the day (it was the day after Easter) well. I remember the fear and the discouragement and the heartbreak that gripped the region that day and those that followed.

What we did not know in those first awful days that we know now is that the Upper Big Branch disaster was the result of a reckless approach to safety practices in the name of maximizing profits. This is the conclusion of a federal report on the matter, and Laurence Leamer’s fascinating book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, makes clear that the impetus for that business culture came directly from Blankenship himself. Indeed, the same practices led to an earlier accident at Massey’s Aracoma mine in 2006, which killed two men (10 others barely escaped with their lives), and also to Massey’s pumping billions of gallons of toxic material into the water supplies of thousands of West Virginians over a period of many years.

As it tottered under the weight of multiple law suits brought on by all of this, Massey Energy was purchased by one of its competitors, Alpha Resources, in 2011, just before Blankenship took a multi-million-dollar retirement package and moved to Las Vegas (though I believe the house on the hill over Williamson still belongs to him).

Now I see that Blankenship has produced his own little documentary defending himself. There’s also an ABC News report on the still incomplete federal criminal investigation. (The video at the link there is worth a look.)  Most striking is the comment from WV Senator Joe Manchin: “I believe that Don has blood on his hands. And I believe that justice will be done.”

This is interesting to the casual observer, I suppose, but if you’ve lived in coal country over the past two or three decades and known first hand the way Blankenship has dominated the economy, culture, and even the mythology of the place, it’s a stunning couple of sentences to read.

“It’s a prison”

The threats to the water supply that began yesterday morning in southern West Virginia are only the latest in a long series of similar problems that have occured in that state as a result of coal production. As we have all enjoyed the benefits of easily available fossil fuel energy creation, the residents of this very poor state have paid the consequences.

But I can only imagine that many folks living in the central Appalachian coalfields are shaking their heads this weekend. The discovery of about 5,000 gallons of chemicals used in coal production accidentally seeping into the Elk River near Charleston, the state’s capital, happened at about 10:30 am yesterday, and it was national news by mid-afternoon. The state government, schools, and businesses all shut down, and the Department of Homeland Security is sending in bottled water on 16 tractor-trailer trucks today to distribution centers in and around Charleston. “It’s a prison from which we would like to be released,” the mayor of Charleston told CNN yesterday afternoon. And from what I have read, it’s apparently not even clear that the water is very unsafe yet; most of the response seems to be precautionary in nature. As it should be.

Well, it’s nice that everyone has lept into action. But giant multi-billion-dollar coal companies have intentionally pumped billions of gallons of more toxic stuff into the ground of some of the poorest counties of southern West Virginia for decades, leaving entire communities with dangerous and disgusting water supplies and their residents suffering long-term effects that include chronic nausea, chronic diarhhea, gum disease, dimentia, birth defects, sterility, cancer, and more.

The difference this weekend is that it happened to Charleston, where middle- and upper-class people live, where the state legislators and business leaders work and where their kids go to school.

After reading the coverage from West Virginia for about 20 minutes early this morning, I was literally feeling grateful to be able to step into a clean and safe shower. There are West Virginia families and communities that have been unable to do that for years. Anyone see a problem here?