Trails in the Sand: The Story behind the Story
February 15, 2016
I wrote Trails in the Sand in 2013, two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The two events occurred within two weeks of one another and killed a total of forty men.
Both tragedies could have been prevented if safety standards had been in place and enforced. The book uses both events as the backdrop to the disasters occurring in the lives of the main characters as families mourn and oil gushes from the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Lives were lost unnecessarily and wildlife and their habitats were threatened. And are still threatened to this day.
The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, has been found guilty of “conspiring to violate federal safety standards,” which led to the death of twenty-nine men. This is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one-year in prison.
He was exonerated on three felony charges. It seems to be a ‘slap on the wrist,’ but it is the first time that a major coal executive has ever been held accountable for decisions made at the top of the chain that impacted the workers far below the earth, who put their lives in jeopardy every single day. To read more about Blankenship and his date with the jury, go to the New York Times article.
Someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to know that when regulations are in place, they must be followed or there are consequences. Someone must enforce the regulations.
I maintained in Trails in the Sand that we will not be able to live without the energy and fuel from coal and petroleum, but we don’t have to retrieve them in a way that endangers human and animal life and their habitats. Yet it happens and those responsible are rarely asked to pay for their crimes.
There are forty families in the United States who will again celebrate their holidays this without a member of their family because of greed and the quest to bring us gas for our cars and electricity for our homes.
Here’s an excerpt from Trails in the Sand – a factual recounting of mining disasters in the United States.
History of Coal Mining Disasters in the United States
Wildlife exhibits the first signs, acting as the harbinger of coming environment disasters. Coal miners knew it to be true. That’s why in the earliest days of coal mining, the miners would take a caged canary down into the mines with them. This small songbird could detect the smallest quantities of methane and carbon monoxide. If the canary kept singing, the mine was deemed safe. If the singing stopped, the canary keeled over, and the miners escaped.
The early miners in West Virginia in the 1880s were mostly European immigrants and African-Americans, and they served a sort of peonage in those early mines. They rented or bought their own equipment and lived in company houses, and their pay went to the company store for food. It was a hard life, during the day and during the night.
The fear of death never left their doorstep because the owners of those mines did nothing to ensure the safety of those workers. West Virginia’s safety record was one of the worst in the nation, and that distinction was sealed in 1907 when the worst mine disaster in history occurred on December 6 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. Methane most likely ignited coal dust in two mines, killing at least 400 men, if not 500.
Now it’s an accepted fact that to keep coal dust from becoming combustible, it needs to be coated with lime. Rumblings among the families of the victims at Upper Big Branch hinted that more than one hundred years later coal dust sometimes accumulated because Massey was cutting corners, and not enough workers were available to make sure the lime was applied to keep the dust levels low.
When the workers went down into the mine on April 5, 2010, more than one hundred years after the disaster in Monongah, a caged canary might have warned the miners to the danger lurking in the air.