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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Human Costs of Coal and Oil

Air Date: Week of

This month brings the anniversaries of disasters that struck America’s coal and oil producing regions. Together, the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia, and the Deepwater Horizon explosion off the Louisiana coast took 40 lives. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young talks with two people who lost loved ones and discovers a hidden cost of energy.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. Poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” And this April brings cruel reminders of disasters a year ago in two important energy producing regions of our country. It was on April 5th, 2010, that Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded in West Virginia.

It was the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years. Then on April 20th, the BP Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in flames and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering our biggest oil spill. Those twin disasters, just 15 days apart, put in stark view the costs some places pay for the coal and oil we consume. Here’s Living on Earth’s Jeff Young.

Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine was the scene of the nation’s worst mining disaster in 40 years, when 29 men perished on April 5, 2010. (MSHA)

YOUNG: A year ago this month, 40 men went to work to bring energy to America. And they never came back. Twenty-nine men died in the Upper Big Branch mine. Eleven died on the Deepwater Horizon rig. At memorial events this month, they’re remembered as men of faith and family, small town roots, and blue-collar pride. Here are two of those stories, as told by people left behind.

Roy Wyatt Kemp of Jonesville, Louisiana, was 27. He worked for Transocean on the Deepwater Horizon. He had two children. Courtney Kemp is his widow.

KEMP: Wyatt and I actually started dating in high school. We were both 15, actually. We were, you know, just high school sweethearts, we did everything together. Everybody says we grew up together. And then in 2004, we got married. And he just really, really enjoyed family and friends and just loved being with his girls.

YOUNG: Gary Wayne Quarles of Naoma, West Virginia, was 33. He worked for the Massey Energy subsidiary that ran the Upper Big Branch Mine. He had two children. His father, Gary Quarles, is also a miner.

QUARLES: Gary Wayne had been in the mines for 13 years. He worked when he first came out of high school at a sawmill just for a little while. And then he went to work underground. He said ‘I been in the mines crawling in mud, working in water up to my waist.’ That’s what you work in. But he was about like me - he didn’t mind it.

KEMP: You know, it takes a special kind of guy to be able to work out in the Gulf and he loved his job. The oil field definitely has its ups and downs. Of course most of the guys hate being away from their family but enjoy their time off. And he really enjoyed that and being able to hunt and fish and do whatever he wanted when he was at home, just really enjoyed the outdoors. And he has a duck dog, Ellie, that’s a chocolate lab that’s pretty much his best friend - rides around with him all the time and all that kind of stuff when he was at home.

The Deepwater Horizon rig in flames, April 20, 2010. Roy Wyatt Kemp was among the 11 workers killed. (US Coast Guard)

QUARLES: Me and him hunted a lot, turkey hunted and deer hunted. What me and him would have done every day if we didn’t have to work. The headstone we got for him is a big buck mounted with a set of big horns and bears and turkeys and water running like a stream. But that was him, he loved it.

[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Rain, Rain” from Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch records 1999).]

YOUNG: Gary Quarles says there was never much question about what his son would do for a living. In the Coal River valley, coal is what people do. Courtney Kemp says her husband’s choices were limited, too.

KEMP: Well, you know, where we live in, we live in central Louisiana, and basically our state is the oil industry or agriculture. You’re walking down the road, you know, in our hometown, probably 80 percent of the men who live here work in the oil field in some shape or form. So that was nothing new, nothing really, you know, special to us, you know, that’s just the way of life.

QUARLES: I’m looking at a mountaintop removal from my kitchen door. I mean, I don’t want to see the mountains tore up but when it comes right down to it, it’s jobs. My dad was a coal miner, my two brothers was a coal miner. And my two grandpas both were coal miners, and the grandpa on my dad’s side, he was killed in the coal mines. And as far as I know, it’s always been coal mining. But then the explosion happened, and I ain’t been back to work underground since.

Gary Quarles in his underground mining gear. He had mined underground 13 years, the fourth generation of coal miners in the Quarles family. (Photo permission of family)

[MUSIC: Bill Frisell “Rain, Rain” from Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch records 1999).]

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve spent my last day underground, with 34 years. I see a psychiatrist and I told him I’ve never been afraid to go underground. And he said it’s not nothing about being afraid. It’s up in your head, you know, it’s just things that just ain’t right no more, you know.

KEMP: You know, one of the hardest things that I did…you know, when Transocean sent me Wyatt’s truck back, I – it was a couple weeks before I would drive it – and I had to drive it to town and get some gas. And I opened up his gas tank and on the actual gas lid, when you open it up, it says BP and it has the BP symbol. And that… that would be very, very minute to anybody else - like, people basically wouldn’t even pay attention to that. But to me, I lost it right there. It was just gut-wrenching.

Roy Wyatt Kemp duck hunting in Louisiana’s cypress swamps. “He loved hunting, loved the outdoors,” Courtney Kemp says of her late husband.

YOUNG: Courtney Kemp remembering her husband, Wyatt, and Gary Quarles talking about his son, Gary. Two of the men lost in last year’s disasters, two families that paid a price for energy that doesn’t show up at the gas pump or on an electric bill. Next week, we’ll hear how coal and oil have shaped the people and places that provide energy.

GIARDINA: Whether it’s the Louisiana oil fields or coal fields in West Virginia, anyplace where you have a major extractive industry and it’s the dominant industry in a place, then you’re gonna have the same situation.

YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.



Jeff Young interviews Coal River author Michael Shnayerson about Massey Energy’s safety and environment record

US Mine Safety and Health Administration’s resource on the Upper Big Branch mine

Oil Spill Commission final report on the Deepwater Horizon

A memorial for the miners created by students at West Virginia University


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