Columns/Opinion, Editorials

50 years later, it’s time to allow for lawsuit on what caused Farmington No. 9 explosion

Many historic 50th anniversaries still lie in wait this year.
Some have already passed, like the Tet Offensive and Martin Luther King’s assassination.
But many more are yet to come that mark 1968 as one of the most tumultuous years in American history.
Memories of one such event in 1968, which often doesn’t appear on its timelines, will never be forgotten in local and state history. Though some may think mine disasters in West Virginia are too common to be listed among historic events, we never will, especially this one.
On Nov. 20, 1968, the Farmington No. 9 mine, in Marion County, exploded, killing 78 men, 19 of whom are still entombed there.
Though mine disasters rarely generate a response from Congress, much like today’s mass shootings, what happened next in the aftermath of this one was different.
Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which increased federal mine inspections and toughened safety standards.
The reason we address this mine disaster now is, a hearing is scheduled today on it before a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va.
Many of the families of the 78 miners who died are asking that court to reinstate a lawsuit they filed in 2014.
A federal judge in Clarksburg ruled in April 2017 the lawsuit was filed too late, because of a two-year limitation period on filing such wrongful-death lawsuits.
Attorneys for the families of the miners are arguing that limitation should be extended because of what they contend was concealment of the facts.
Such facts as a memo attesting the mine’s chief electrician disabled an alarm on a ventilation fan used to flush methane from the mine and other documentation.
No violations were ever issued, no fines levied and no action ever taken against the mine owner. State and federal reports on Farmington No. 9 also were never issued.
The families accuse the company of fraudulently concealing facts that would have allowed them to file a wrongful-death lawsuit long ago.
We are not weighing in for or against the merits of these families’ case, in what must still be an emotional issue.
Still, these families deserve the benefit of a trial that would allow a panel of judges or a jury to decide who, if anyone, was accountable for this disaster.
The lawsuit was seeking $110,000 for each of the victims’ families in 2014, as well as punitive damages and interest.
Nearly 50 years later, why not allow justice to take its course and provide these families closure?
Much of what happened in 1968 — at this mine and elsewhere — will always revive old arguments and reopen old wounds.
Be that as it may, efforts to veil any alleged wrongdoing that happened then will not be healed by time alone.