Local attorney featured at 'Storied Evenings' event
July 15, 2011
This year's Storied Evenings event series began on July 6 at the Presbyterian Meetinghouse on Washington Street in Shepherdstown.
The event began in 2004, growing out of a lecture series. The idea of storytelling was incorporated to make the events more inviting and to differentiate from the many other lectures held in Shepherdstown.
The stories each week are from a local person of interest with some recognition. The informal criteria are that people should know of this person, but not know them personally.
Musicians performed at the opening of the event July 6 followed by a story from local attorney J. Davitt McAteer. Afterwards, the audience participated in a question-and-answer session and was invited into the fellowship hall of the meetinghouse for desserts and an art viewing.
McAteer began his career as a social worker but found that he didn't want to temporarily fix problems but instead actually make changes.
He went on to law school at West Virginia University and in 1969 and started working in mine safety with Ralph Nader, a progressive political activist who later ran for president. Together they enacted the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Acts.
McAteer gained recognition for his work on mine safety and was asked to come to New York City after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in 2001. He helped redesign and reinforce the subway tunnels as well as basements and foundations under buildings throughout the city.
McAteer said that he has since continued to work to improve mine safety but has never worked in a mine. He has strived to better both federal and local laws and regulations and worked with former Gov. Joe Manchin.
He said there are three preventative measures coal mines are supposed to take to prevent methane gas ignitions in mines that a Massey Energy plant ignored in 2010, leading to a mine disaster at Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
McAteer said when coal is cut into, it releases highly flammable methane gas and leaves coal dust. Ventilation, hosing the work area down and spreading ground limestone to lower the ignition temperature of coal dust are ways mine companies can prevent fires and keep workers safe.
McAteer said Upper Big Branch Mine ignored and cut corners on these safety measures, and sparks from a cutting machine ignited the methane gas.
"Coal dust without limestone rock dust is like gunpowder," McAteer said.
Twenty-nine miners died from the explosion, and some died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
McAteer said that mine safety is supposed to start at the top of the company and go down from there, but in the case of the mine disaster in 2010 this was not true. McAteer said 17 upper management members did not testify in the trials, and some of the mine employees were intimidated out of testifying.
McAteer said that West Virginia has the reputation of being the worst mining state in the nation. He is working on trying to unionize miners, something he said may help improve their working conditions. McAteer said that unions are another reporting authority, which is why mining companies stop the formation of labor unions.
The last Storied Evenings event will be July 20 at the Presbyterian Meetinghouse, 100 W. Washington St. at 7:30 p.m.