Historical Marker #2314 in Letcher County notes the tragic mine explosions that occurred at Scotia Mine in 1976. The accidents are noted as being one of the worst mine disasters in U.S. history.
When industrial coal mining came to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it brought both positives and negatives. On the one hand, mining operations brought a steady paycheck to those who had largely lived by the alternating fortunes of farming. Conversely, the mines brought a sense of employment dependence and often unsafe working conditions.
By the mid-1900s, mining safety had improved drastically from just a few years before. Battery powered lamps had replaced carbide lanterns and continuous automated mining equipment had taken over for the pick and shovel and draft animals. But, due to the nature of the work, accidents still injured miners.
The Scotia Mine began operations in 1962 and was a subsidiary of the Blue Diamond Coal Company. It was located in the Ovenfork Community of Letcher County, about fourteen miles northeast of the town of Cumberland (Harlan County, Kentucky). On March 9, 1976, at approximately 11:45 a.m., an explosion caused by coal dust and gasses rocked the Scotia mine. Two days later, a second explosion happened. The first explosion killed fifteen miners; the second killed eleven. Investigators believed that the explosions were caused by methane gasses that were ignited by a spark caused by a battery-powered locomotive or another electric device. A lack of ventilation figured prominently in the accidents.
The explosions at Scotia led to the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. This law strengthened the previously passed 1969 act, which, at the time, had been the most significant legislation on mine safety ever adopted in the U.S. The 1977 law also moved the Mine Safety and Health Administration from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Labor.