Thursday, August 09, 2007

Utah, Big Coal, and Chris Cooper

The events going on with the mine collapse in Huntington, Utah is very sad indeed. The picture above is Robert Murray, President and CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, which owns mine operator Genwal Resources Inc, and is co-owner of the mine which collapsed. Seeing clips of him speak (now and in the past) certainly frustrates me because he is so cartoonish in his dealings with this event.

When I've pictured the 6 miners stuck in the mine (I first off hope they're alive), I imagine the scenes from Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. The real life story of two port authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), is a horrible piece of the 9/11 story which shows these two guys stuck under the rubble of the World Trade Center hoping desperately to be found, not knowing what is going on beyond their dark and stark environment.

Yet, to me the tragic difference is that at least McLoughlin and Jimeno were police officers who were trapped in an effort to do their job, save lives, and were serving their country in a unique and horrific event.

The tragedy of the mine accident in Utah, are different, because these men who are trapped under a mountain, were trapped because they were digging out coal for union wages to provide for their families and line the pockets of men like Robert Murray.

A couple years ago I read the book Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. In the book Barbara traces the power and history of coal through many historical events and times.Arguing largely for the ecological danger, beginning with what was seen in London centuries ago, Freese makes a passionate portrayal of the dangers and influence of coal in our world, both in mind and from particulates emitted from power plants and within coal mines. Freese cites an EPA report from 2000 that suggest that in the world 30,000 people a year die from emissions from power plants (more than die from traffic accidents, homicide, or AIDs combined). She also cites that in the US 1400 coal workers die each year of "black lung," in addition to number of coal miners who actually die as the result of mining accidents.

To me, it is sad that all of this is in the name of energy. That I, as an American Consumer, am part of this problem. I don't know what the answer is, but it saddens me, because some Americans are working very hard and risking great danger so that I can have lights to turn on, air conditioning to run, a refrigerator, coffee maker, etc.

Whenever I think of coal I always think of Chris Cooper.
Chris Cooper has played superbly in two very different films roles dealing with coal, once as a labor organizer and once as a miner.

In 1987, Chris Cooper did a superb job in John Sayles film, Matewan. The film is about the real life events in 1920's in West Virginia as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) met great resistence and violence in an effort to unionize and better the horrible conditions for mine workers in "Bloody Mingo" county. In this film Cooper is the union man who witnesses these events and as an outsider tries to mediate and better the deadly conditions for these workers.

In 1999, Chris Cooper plays a miner in October Sky, an adaptation of Homer Hickman's memoirs called Rocket Boys. In this film, set in the 1950s, again in West Virginia, Chris Cooper is not-supportive of the scientific aspirations of his son (Jake Gyllenhaal). The caste system mind set of the West Virginia poor is shown through Cooper's character who's aspirations go no further than his son working his way up the ranks of the local mining system. The dangerous conditions of mining are shown in this film as well, and it's sad to think of the risk these miners were taking, at low wages, for no greater goal then digging up raw energy from the earth.

These films create images of coal mining to me, and I really do hope that the Utah miners are alive and are rescued, and I also hope that the media publicity of this event will urge people and government to think of practical long term solutions to protect miners and reduce the need for coal consumption, not just reactionary changes to how mines are monitored for safety.


kat said...

Matewan is one of my favorite movies ever. Chris Cooper is fantastic. John Sayles is fantastic. There's really no need to even say anything more.

Anonymous said...

It is really sad that the reality of having eneregy/electrcity in the modern world is still at the expense of human lives. But there is a reason why men like Robert Murray are in a solid finanical poisition; there are men and women willing to take that menial job and risk their health and their lives for the sake of $6/hr.

So what is more sad.... Murray's capitalistic endvours that allow my computer to turn on, or the fact that coal miner workers aren't educated enough to know that they could have more to their lives?

Anonymous said...

I've had the same thoughts this week about Robert Murray. He's the definition of "public relations nightmare."

The man I work for made an interesting comment about the incident this week on tv, calling America "the Afghanistan of coal."

I'm going to see if my library has the book you mentioned. Sounds interesting.

viennarain said...

Chris Cooper was in "Silver City" too. Didn't that movie also have something to do with mining?

RC said...

@ kim, i bet mine workers get more than $6/hr. I'd imagine with the unions they'd have to.

not really sure though...and with the benefits, etc. this might be one of the only options available to those who live in these areas.

@ Anthony...afghanistan of coal...that's strong words. if you want to borrow the book you can. let me know, i'll mail it to you even.

@ viennarain - i've never seen silver city...maybe so?

kat said...

Many miners are unionized but apparently the ones in Utah were not. Hopefully they were making more than $6 an hour, but nothing suprises me any more when it comes to corporate greed.

Lynda said...

Thank you for your comment on my site, and, loved your post... it is indeed, dangerous and even ridiculous that in the year 2007, we even consider this an energy source. The facts are documented and the dangers are clear. Then, to think of the dangers these men face constantly and consistently, without aid in times of failed structure, is beyond understanding... It would be so easy to supply miners with tracking systems, as I have stated, and, certainly there would be more hope for them in the event of collapsed shafts... Amazing isn't it? Like a catch 22... My heart aches for these kind of people and I wish the maddness would stop, but, in the name of money, it is not likely... great post....

Terence Towles Canote said...

Matewan is a great film. And from what I understand a fairly accurate portrait of the events surrounding the 1920 coal miners' strike in Matewan, West Virginia.

Michael Parsons said...

You’ve been Tagged

Ando said...

My great-Grandfather worked in the coal mines of New Mexico in the early part of the last century, starting when he was about 10 years old. My grandmother has told me stories about growing up in the mining towns and how the mining companies basically controlled the towns, including the stores where the bare necessities for life were outrageously overpriced. Many families would end up owing the company money on pay-day, rather than making any.

I don't know anything about Robert Murray and haven't seen him on TV, so will reserve judgment. You would hope things within the industry would have improved over the last 100 years, and I'm sure they have, but the mining is bound to be inherently dangerous no matter what century we're in. Its one of the eternal trade-offs society has to make, "progress" vs. safety.

Joe Leydon said...

I will always remember Chris Cooper's great speech in Matewan: "They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy."

Anonymous said...

I love Chris Cooper but didn't remember his roles in these coal-ish movies. I actually got to meet him recently as he lives in Massachusetts now.

Melissa said...

Miners should be very responsible of their activities. It is sad that some people die innocently. Advance equipments for mining are invented and developed nowadays and mining companies must utilized them well and responsibly. mining equipment