The first time my professional life as a journalist crossed with my personal life in a major way was in 2002, when workers at Black Thunder coal mine in Wyoming began telling their supervisors about potential dangers from a highwall.
Black Thunder is one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world. Draglines and truck-and-shovel fleets carve huge strips into the earth, creating towering walls that miners work beneath to retrieve the coal. In one pit, they noticed chunks of dirt and rock were tumbling down. One day, a rock catapulted off the highwall and smashed onto a vehicle, paralyzing miner Les Butts. A month later, in the same pit, a huge slice of earth sheared away, crushing a rubber-tire dozer and killing Allen “Big A” Greger.
The tragedies created a rift between miners and supervisors, but one that remained mostly unspoken while personal injury attorneys and the Mine Safety and Health Administration investigated. A local reporter — me — refused to let the story end with the company’s statements. I began examining the mine’s safety record, highwall safety protocol and the legal framework that shields employers from their own negligence, while exposing supervisors to civil lawsuits.
My reporting made things weird for one coal miner in particular — my dad. He was a shovel operator who had logged more than 20 years at the mine. He was also part of the rescue team that snapped into action for what turned out to be the recovery, rather than the rescue of, Big A. During subsequent investigations, there was some resentment that a beneficiary of the coal mine — me — wouldn’t just shut the hell up. If it weren’t for the coal mine, after all, this young reporter might not have grown up comfortably in a community that was growing wealthier with every coal train. In fact, I’d worked two summers at Black Thunder as a college student “summer hire,” which I still consider a terrific experience and opportunity.
But I wasn’t a coal miner in 2002. My employer was a newspaper and I was a reporter. I had an important story to pursue. Les Butts and his family had suffered terribly. Big A’s family had paid the ultimate price. That mattered to me a lot. And damn right, I was concerned about my father’s safety.
“If my reporting amounted to advocacy for workplace safety, that was the kind of advocacy we’d gladly admit to.” -Dustin Bleizeffer
Fortunately, my editor and I were in agreement: If my reporting amounted to advocacy for workplace safety, that was the kind of advocacy we’d gladly admit to. Reporting and editorializing in the best interest of a community is a tenet of good community journalism.
But I also worried about my dad’s job security. There are no union coal mines in northeast Wyoming today, and a very large percentage of the 6,000 coal miners are dedicated “company men.” With MSHA and a gaggle of attorneys breathing down the mine’s neck, why was the son of a Black Thunder miner adding more heat to the fire?
One day, a high-ranking supervisor picked up my father at the change house to drive him to his shovel for another shift. They went for “a drive and a talk,” as my father recently recalled. “Are you unhappy working here?” the supervisor asked. “No,” my father answered. The supervisor recalled that I had worked at the mine for two summers. “Was he unhappy about something while working here?” “No,” my fathered answered, a bit pissed off about what might be transpiring. “Well, it seems like he’s coming down on us pretty hard,” the supervisor said.
To that, my father responded that he was a professional with a job to do, and so was his son. He pointed out that my contact information was listed in the newspaper, and that if the supervisor had a complaint or something to ask, he could do so directly.
The drive, to my father’s relief, ended at his shovel rather than the front gate. I never did get a call from a concerned coal mine supervisor. My dad continued to work at Black Thunder until he retired 11 years later. MSHA and Black Thunder settled on an updated mining and highwall plan. Les Butts sued his supervisors, and a jury determined he and his family were entitled to $22 million (though the actual award was $9.46 million because of company immunity to civil lawsuits for negligence).
I covered the trial, which included testimony showing that notes in which miners warned of highwall sloughing prior to the accidents had been shredded. I was astonished at the yawning silence this detail seemed to evoke from readers. Then again, coal miners in the anti-union Powder River Basin aren’t known for publicly speaking against coal companies.
Ultimately, my family and I didn’t suffer harmful consequences from whatever disloyalty some in the community might have felt I committed. Some coal miners were even grateful that a reporter was shining a light on matters of safety in ways they could not do in public themselves.
The experience affirmed that seeking the truth frees you from potentially sticky entanglements and conflicts of interest. It won’t free you from threats or intimidation — but even those are opportunities to practice your professionalism and commitment to the community you serve.
Dustin Bleizeffer is a reporter at WyoFile.com and a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. He has covered energy, environment and policy issues in Wyoming for the past 18 years.