restricted access No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster by Bonnie E. Stewart (review)
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No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster. By Bonnie E. Stewart. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011. Pp. 288).

Bonnie E. Stewart, a journalist who taught at West Virginia University, spent four years investigating the 1968 Farmington mine disaster. To write this book, she drew upon a number of sources: sworn testimony, state and federal inspection records, news accounts, company documents, and interviews. She [End Page 90] admittedly knew nothing of coal mining prior to her investigation. She acquired expertise, but not the fatalistic views about mine safety shared by many of the miners and others she interviewed. She refused to accept the dire admonition that coal cannot be run without blood on it. Thus, she writes with a sense of outrage, and with a moralizing edge, that makes the narrative both riveting and, at times, naïve.

The basic facts of the Farmington disaster are well known. Seventy-eight miners died following a series of explosions at the extensive underground workings of Consolidation Coal Company's No. 9 mine on November 20, 1968. The direct cause of the explosions was an ignition of methane, probably a spark from a mining machine, which spread rapidly to other parts of the mine on wave after wave of coal dust. Rescue efforts were futile, partly because of the continuing threat of explosions. Recovery of the bodies took nearly ten years; in fact, nineteen bodies were never recovered and remained entombed after the mine was sealed in 1978.

Stewart provides an interesting narrative of the unfolding of the disaster and its aftermath, but is primarily concerned with the question of responsibility. She carefully probed existing records and conducted extensive interviews, knowing that if the proper safety precautions had been taken the disaster would not have occurred. If proper ventilation had been in place, methane would not have accumulated. If the mine had been properly cleaned and rock dusted, coal dust would not have accumulated or would have been rendered inert. However, these safety measures had not been taken. Why?

Stewart points the finger of blame at the Consolidation Coal Company. Consol, which purchased the mine in 1954, modernized it, but failed to provide adequate ventilation. Warnings from both union miners and foremen about poor ventilation and accumulations of coal dust were routinely ignored. Rock dusting was haphazard and intermittent. State and federal mine inspectors were ineffective in halting dangerous practices. They issued citations, but none dealt directly with the faulty ventilation system. The United Mine Workers of America, under the leadership of the notorious Tony Boyle, was unwilling or unable to intervene. In fact, even miners shared the attitude that production came first and safety second.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Farmington disaster. It was the first mining disaster to be fully covered by television. Due in part to the lobbying efforts of the miners' widows, the disaster led directly to the passage of the landmark 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. As Stewart poignantly points out: "[I]f the families of the dead have found any peace, it has come from knowing that their loved ones made coal mining safer for thousands of men and women" (208). [End Page 91]

This book is illustrated with mine maps and photos, and has short chapters that are easy to understand. Stewart's strengths are putting a human face to this terrible tragedy, and her dogged determination to uncover the truth. Overall, the book is more like a Progressive-era muckraking account than a scholarly, analytical case study like Anthony Wallace's St. Clair. It is an important work, because it documents an important—if incomplete—change in the state's mining culture. Running coal with blood on it is no longer an accepted mode of operation. [End Page 92]

Michael E. Workman
West Virginia State University