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Graffiti's 'Eer of the year 2003 : Jack Spadaro
By Anna Sale
On June 4, 2003, while out of town, Jack Spadaro, superintendent at Beckley's
Mine Health and Safety Academy, received a brief memo from his supervisors.
After 30 years as a mine inspector, he had been put on administrative leave and
told not to return to work. According to the memo, he was also prohibited from
coming by the academy or contacting his former employees.
In his absence, his office was raided - his personal papers confiscated and
family photographs disassembled. Four months later, he was notified he was to be
fired. If the career of Jack Spadaro, West Virginia's most notorious and perhaps
most vigilant mine engineer, has been anything, it has been a difficult, ugly,
and a deeply human poem. It encompasses needless loss of life, the dogged
pursuit of truth and lasting relationships with communities, all against the
backdrop of the Appalachian landscape.
For more than 30 years, Spadaro's work has served as a unwavering spotlight on
the impact of politics on real people's lives, which is exactly why Graffiti has
chosen Spadaro as its 'Eer of the Year for 2003.
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials put Spadaro on
administrative leave in June from his job as superintendent of the National Mine
Safety and Health Training Academy. He has been notified of his firing and is
awaiting confirmation. The cause for his termination: $22.60 in bank fees from
credit card advances (which he repaid); labor-management conflicts (which have
been resolved); and failure to follow procedures and orders.
"I have considered your 26 years of service, recent satisfactory performance
ratings, and the fact that you have no prior disciplinary action taken against
you," wrote MSHA official Frank Schwaber in Spadaro's termination letter.
"However, these factors do not outweigh the seriousness of your actions."
Spadaro's firing closely followed his public criticism of MSHA, his own agency.
He resigned from the investigation team of the Martin County Coal dam breakage,
a 2000 environmental disaster that was larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill,
claiming the final report would be "a whitewash." He complained about two no-bid
contracts illegally awarded by the head of his agency. He complained about
unaccounted for purchase orders for friends of higher-ups. He complained about
wasteful spending, about MSHA's failure to prevent a fatal mine collapse in
2000, about neglect of an employee's sexual harassment suit.
Spadaro is most certainly a whistle-blower. And the flimsy charges against him
suggest, as several news outlets have already pointed out, that he lost his job
for it. Even the federal government's own watchdog, the Office of the Inspector
General, reported there may have been "retaliatory events"
The story of Spadaro's firing has attracted the attention of The New York Times,
Vanity Fair, National Public Radio and Salon.com. A "60 Minutes" piece on
Spadaro's dismissal is slated to air in February, and members of Congress have
called for an investigation into his firing. Sometimes granting upwards of five
interviews a day, Spadaro has taken to unplugging his phone at night.
Spadaro's case is sure to bring a flash of attention to Appalachia, to mining
accidents and environmental disasters, and to a federal administration that has
eliminated one of its most dedicated employees. But after the media blitz comes
and goes, we will still have the legacy of more than 30 years of Spadaro's
service to workers and community members, and the example of fearless principles
he has provided.
Spadaro, 54, grew up in Mount Hope, Fayette County, the son of a coal machine
repairman and a phone company employee. As a boy, he roamed the woods
surrounding his home, which stoked an appreciation of the Appalachian forests.
"As I grew older, I learned about the biological diversity of the forests,"
Spadaro recalled. "Then I saw what was happening to them. I thought I could take
my training in engineering and use it to protect them."
With help from a scholarship, courtesy of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society,
Spadaro enrolled in WVU's engineering school. His training enabled him to travel
throughout the coalfields, learning about mining culture and the miners
During one college internship, Spadaro worked at the Farmington mine, near
Fairmont, inspecting and getting to know the mine. Three months after he
returned to school, there was an explosion that killed 78 men. "That was an
awakening," he recalled.
When Spadaro graduated in 1970, the political climate surrounding mining had
changed considerably. The Farmington explosion led to the passage of the 1969
Mine Health and Safety Act. Meanwhile, the Black Lung and Miners for Democracy
movements were gaining steam.
Then, on Feb. 26, 1972, the coal refuse dam above Buffalo Creek gave way,
killing 125 people. Spadaro, just 23 years old, was hired as a staff engineer
for the commission investigating the disaster. He arrived in Buffalo Creek
within weeks of the disaster and went on to write most of the final report on
This context galvanized his philosophy about his work and his commitment to West
Virginia. "I got into mining first for the money," he said. "But after I saw
what I saw, I changed my mind... [these experiences] all combined to keep me
"It was always the folks who had to deal with these terrible things who were
affected by mining - the people in the mines and the mining communities that I
wanted to represent," he added.
He went on to work for the state Division of Natural Resources, the federal
Office of Surface Mining, and finally, MSHA.
Over the years, Spadaro's commitment didn't go unnoticed by those he helped.
Margaret Workman, a resident of Raleigh County, went to Spadaro for help in the
early 1970s when her community was fighting strip mining. He pointed Workman to
the applicable laws, and spent hours at the Workman home helping the members of
their organization "Richmond District Better Citizens Club" decipher them. "We
called him our long-haired hippy," she remembered. "He's always been a very
fair, honest, caring person... who's always wanted to help anyone or everyone do
a good job."
Julian Martin met Spadaro at a community meeting in Lincoln County around 1976.
A crowd had assembled at the local Lions Club, frustrated by the destruction in
a nearby hollow by a gas company. Martin was surprised that Spadaro, a
government official, attended, noting that he seemed as upset as the community
members, and was "up-front and hard-hitting" in his comments. Martin had
never seen such a thing from a state official and it sparked a long friendship
"He's one of the handful of fearless people that I know," Martin said.
Spadaro would often attend community meetings. Kate Long, a friend from WVU,
recalled on one occasion that Spadaro went to a protest about strip mining.
Aware the protesters might run into local opposition, Spadaro told Long he just
went to stand in the back with his arms folded and "look big."
"That's Jack," Long explained. "He never hesitates to help someone who was being
pushed around... I think everyone in Southern West Virginia owes him something."
In 1997 Spadaro was hired by MSHA as at the National Mine Health and Safety
Academy. In 1998, he was appointed superintendent by then Assistant Secretary of
Labor Davitt McAteer. The Academy, which had been floundering for years,
improved rapidly under Spadaro's leadership. The curriculum expanded, the number
of conferences increased, and many programs were internationalized.
"He really brought it up to a top-notch facility," noted Ellen Smith, editor of
Mine Safety and Health News.
Spadaro continued his commitment to helping people even while overseeing the
academy. Freda Williams of Coal River Mountain Watch met Spadaro while making
inquiries about a coal waste impoundment, or dam, in her community.
Designed by the same engineer responsible for the Buffalo Creek and Martin
County dams, this impoundment is the largest in the country, and it's just up a
hollow from her house.
"Spadaro was always available and would always return my calls," she said.
"He cares about the safety of the people in the mining region. I haven't felt
that he favors one side over the other. I think he was right down the middle."
Joe Main, the United Mine Workers' administrator of Health and Safety, agreed.
"When Jack left there, it was a loss for miners. It's hard to replace a fellow
who had the insight and compassion for miners that he had."
During these years, Spadaro also maintained his reputation as an expert on mine
waste dams. So, after a dam broke in Martin County, KY, on Oct. 11, 2000,
dumping 306 million tons of toxic coal sludge into 100 miles of streams, McAteer
appointed Spadaro to the investigation team. "Jack was appointed for the precise
reason that he had so much experience," McAteer said. "He was a highly regarded
This investigation began during the final weeks of the Clinton administration.
They worked steadily to determine the cause of the accident and determine how it
had happened. The team uncovered a memo that showed MSHA had failed to make
recommended improvements on the Martin County dam after a smaller spill in 1994.
But, according to Spadaro, "after the inauguration of George Bush, we were
abruptly withdrawn from the investigation." Spadaro also said the team was
explicitly told by the investigation supervisor, "We're not going to let any
fingers point at MSHA."
In April of 2001, after "it became obvious to me that the top people in the
agency were interfering with the conclusions," Spadaro asked his bosses to
resign from the team.
The Martin County investigation may be the most egregious example, but it is
only one of the several problems within MSHA that has prompted Spadaro to speak
"I purposely did not make public statements because I was part of the regulatory
process," Spadaro said. "I did make statements when it was outrageous."
That sense of honesty and integrity has been a constant throughout his career.
"I can't tell you how many times his job has been threatened," Long said. "But
Jack won't back down."
Mary Walton, the environmental reporter at The Charleston Gazette at the time of
the Buffalo Creek disaster, remembered that even as a 23-year-old engineer,
Spadaro's priority was the health and safety of people around mining.
"To me, the surprise is that he survived as long as he did," she said.
"Because, for many years, he's waged subterranean warfare against the abusive
practices of coal companies and their many allies in the government. But
they were never able to pin anything on him because he's scrupulously honest. I
don't think I know anyone with more integrity."
In today's political context, a smoking gun isn't a prerequisite for
termination. MSHA is "much more politicized than it ever was," according to
Smith. When Spadaro arrived at his office at the Academy in June, 2003, his key
didn't work. After more than 30 years as a mine inspector, he'd been locked out
of his office. When he finally got in the door, his office had been raided, his
personal papers confiscated and family photographs disassembled.
Notified of his imminent firing in October, Spadaro expects to file a legal
appeal as soon as his termination is final.
When he speaks about the politics of his firing and the Administration behind
it, Spadaro doesn't mince words.
"What I've known since 2001 is, this is a truly lawless administration," he
said. "It has no regard for the laws regarding mine health and safety, or the
laws governing appropriate ways to deal with employees in its agencies.
Anyone who opposes them - they simply try to get rid of them. They'll do
anything to protect their friends in industry. They have no shame."
Spadaro's former boss McAteer, a Clinton appointee, concurs. "Jack is a presence
that reminds people that these problems exist in the agency, so they got rid of
These days, it's clear Spadaro is a man taking stock of his career. He
references the many chances he's had to leave the state for other opportunities.
"I've thought about other jobs I could have had, and how I became involved in
this for so long," he said with a twinge of sadness. "But, the good part is,
I've gotten to know this region, the people and the rhythms of the land. It's a
great part of me. It still breaks my heart when I see the destruction."
He continues to speak passionately about violations in mountaintop removal
mining and coal waste disposal. His conversations are littered with details
about how the health and safety of coal miners and communities could be improved
with existing technology.
"I wasn't born an environmentalist," he's often said. "I became one because of
what I saw happening to the people and the land."
He's been battered by experience, but he always comes back to an appreciation of
West Virginia. "That's what's kept me here - the knowledge that you're not
alone, that you're part of a larger community - that people care for one another
and their environment." After a pause he added, "And that's good."
"I shall not leave these prisoning hills," opens Spadaro's favorite poem, James
Still's "Heritage." The poem plainly describes the difficulty of living within
our rough terrain and the impossibility of leaving it behind. "Being of
these hills," it ends, "I cannot pass beyond."
Like his favorite poem, Spadaro exemplifies the roughness of life in West
Virginia, and the constant battles to stand up for its workers and community
members. His kindness pulls you in, his fearlessness provides inspiration, and
his steadfastness reminds you that you cannot leave.
"It's in Jack's nature to do what he thinks is right," remarked Long. "It gets
him in trouble, but it also gets him loved."