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This Day in Labor History: December 30, 1970

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On December 30, 1970, a coal mine exploded on Hurricane Creek, near Hyden, Kentucky. Thirty-eight miners died that day, yet another example of the terrible safety conditions of coal mining, even at a late date. This was the worst mining disaster in the United States in two years. That this happened after major federal legislation to prevent these accidents and in the face of indifferent or even hostile union leadership to fixing these problems fed into the larger democratic unionism roiling the United Mine Workers and many other unions during the 1970s.

One miner survived the explosion. A.T. Collins was thrown out of the mineshaft by the force of the blast. Eighteen miners died instantly. Twenty others were deeper in the mine and died before they could be rescued. The dead were brought out and taken to the nearest school gymnasium so they could be identified.

This accident happened one year to the day after Richard Nixon signed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act into law. The law mandated greater safety standards in the mines, thanks to inspections conducted by the Bureau of Mines in the Department of the Interior. The Bureau was supposed to close mines where workers’ lives were in danger. But it did not. It had found many violations at the Hurricane Creek mine in the previous months but had taken no meaningful action, thus leading to the death of the 38 miners. On November 19, an inspector visited the mine, finding large amounts of coal dust in the air and a lack of trained personnel for maintaining electrical equipment. The mine owner was ordered to fix the violations by December 22. But with the holidays, no one showed up to make sure they had been fixed before December 30.

But the ultimate responsibility for the law’s lax enforcement came from the top. Richard Nixon, the World’s Last Real Liberal Unlike that Neoliberal Sellout Barack Obama, only signed the law reluctantly. He had no interest in regulating the mines and believed the states should do it. Mine owners constantly complained that the Bureau of Mines was too aggressive in enforcing the new law, even though it did very little. Given the indifference of Nixon and his administration, the law was ineffective in its first year, leading to the deaths outside of Hyden.

Angry miners also faced a lot of problems in their own union. Earlier in the year, UMWA president Tony Boyle had ordered the murder of his rival Jock Yablonski. In addition, Boyle had been utterly indifferent over workplace safety and health, both in terms of mine accidents and in fighting black lung. He relied upon retired miners having full voting rights, as well as open corruption, to stay in power. This had already led to the growth of the Black Lung Associations in 1969 to put pressure on both the West Virginia statehouse and the federal government to pass new legislation. It also openly challenged Boyle and pushed for the election of Yablonski.

So when the mine exploded, there was significant discontent at the grassroots and attention at the national level. Ralph Nader called for a congressional investigation into the missed December 22 safety inspection. The Bureau of Mines filed a report noting that high levels of coal dust and the improper use of explosives caused the disaster. It vaguely claimed that it would seek to file charges against unnamed parties. But the miners believed it was the Bureau that held the ultimate responsibility. UMWA Local 5741 wrote to Congressmen Carl Perkins of Kentucky that this was proof that small mines “get away with murder.” It went on:

They holler that they don’t have enough Inspectors, FOOEY [sic], They inspected this mine [Hyden] and found severe violations, didn’t they? Why wasn’t it corrected before he was allowed to operate again. If they had a MILLION INSPECTORS it wouldn’t help any, if, after an inspection and severe violations were found and nothing was done to correct them

The Labor Subcommittee in the House of Representatives generally agreed with the miners, noting in its report that the Bureau:

should have been on notice as to the dangerous atypical conditions in the mine, should have inspected it with greater frequency, carried out more complete inspections and perhaps most importantly, been present to insure that cited violations were actually abated when required.

The miners then pushed for a new black lung bill, but Nixon resisted this strongly, believing it would cost too much. But the pressure did create more urgency in the Bureau of Mines to do its job and inspect the mines. In 1971, the number of mine inspectors increased from around 250 to around 1000 and mine accidents fell compared to the year before. With Tony Boyle now under indictment for his many crimes, the angry miners involved in protesting the Hurricane Creek explosion turned to Miners for Democracy to reform their union. MFD made rank and file concerns like mine safety and black lung central to its platform, running Arnold Miller to be union president against Boyle, still fighting to stay out of prison. But while Miller did win, his administration did not really fix the health and safety issues to the extent rank and file miners hoped it would. This was for two primary reasons. First, Miller wasn’t all that good at his job and second, the real emphasis of MFD was rooting out the corruption in the UMWA that extended back to the beginning of John L. Lewis’ long presidency. The newly reinvigorated union did put more pressure on the companies, who complained, noting their long-friendly relationship with Boyle on these issues. But there wasn’t that much it could do to truly transform safety in the coal mines.

In recent years, with the UMWA a shell of what it once was and automation combining with the widespread move of the coal industry to Wyoming, it can do little about these health and safety issues. Mine owners like Don Blankenship murder workers without concern and only get prosecuted if they leave an extreme level of evidence, as he did. Coal mining remains a tremendously dangerous job today.

This mine explosion was memorialized in Tom T. Hall’s song “Trip to Hyden,” off his outstanding In Search of a Song album from 1971.

Long before I ever heard of this mine disaster, I drove through Hyden. This was the late 90s. The entire town was literally festooned with memorabilia from its most famous resident, Tim Couch, savior of University of Kentucky football and the Cleveland Browns. Not so sure that’s the case there today.

This post borrowed heavily from Richard Fry’s article, “Dissent in the Coalfields: Miners, Federal Politics, and Union Reform in the United States, 1968-1973,” published in Labor History in 2014.

This is the 204th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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