Ralph Nader: ‘The Miserable State of Mine Safety’

By Ralph Nader

The tragedy at the Massey Energy Company’s very profitable Upper Big Branch coal mine at Montcoal, West Virginia, which so far has cost 25 miners’ lives, is another reminder of the immense human and environmental cost of this fuel. These workers carry high risk work licenses to cover themselves due to the nature of the role.

More coal miners have lost their lives from cave-ins, explosions and lung disease since 1900 than all the Americans who died in World War II. The devastation extends to chronic sickness from breathing coal dust and to maimed coal miners, often seen walking on crutches in the hollows of Appalachia.

During our struggle in the late sixties and seventies to get Congress to authorize the federal government to regulate these pugnacious corporations, and protect among the most defenseless workers in our country (try working 700 to 1800 feet underground six days a week), coal company executives perpetuated a culture tolerant of safety violations. Coal companies are known for greasing their way with political campaign contributions, gross underpayments of property taxes and intimidation of people in poor coal mining country who had few alternative employment opportunities.

Safety and health improvements finally came from the forces of the law (especially the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969) and from an awakened United Mine Workers union. The safety efforts have had to overcome industry lawyers, lobbyists, corporate cover-ups, refusals to pay fines and other misbehavior stemming from unaccountable corporate bosses sitting in fancy offices far from the coal fields.

Half of the nation’s coal companies were fined a modest total of $7 million under the first Bush Administration for faking coal dust samples in 847 underground mines. This is just a cost of doing business instead of a serious deterrent to an epidemic of deadly coal miners pneumoconiosis.

Until new leadership came under Joseph Main in 2009 to run the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Richard L. Trumka, former coal miner and head of the United States Mine Workers (UMW) union and now president of the AFL-CIO, said that George W. Bush converted “MSHA from an enforcement agency to a business consulting group” to King Coal.

With the sharp decline of UMW workers, as non-union strip-mining expands, studies have shown a consistently better safety record of unionized coal mines. The devastated Massey mine was non-union.

The media, which rushes to the scene of mining disasters while ignoring interim warning reports such as ours in 2008, knew who to interview. He was Massey’s defiant, outspoken, arrogant CEO Don Blankenship, whose Montcoal mine was cited by MSHA over 500 times in 2009-2010 for safety violations, including the kinds of violations suspected in the explosion on April 5th. Two citations came on the very day of the calamity. The paltry $1 million in fines covered more than 50 “unwarrantable failure” violations. Among the most serious were citations for problems with escape routes and air quality ventilation.

In 2006 another Massey mine, Aracoma Alma No. 1, was recommended for shutdown by a government inspector, who was over-ruled. The subsequent fatal fire killed two miners and led to a guilty plea for 10 criminal mine safety violations, a $2.5 million fine. Massey also paid the federal government $20 million to settle charges of violating water pollution controls in 2008.

J. Davitt McAteer, the former MSHA Administrator, called the Massey conglomerate “certainly one of the worst in the industry” from a safety standpoint. CEO Blankenship, of course, denies McAteer’s and other workers and inspectors’ assessments. “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America.”

Tell that to the grieving families, some of whom yelled at Blankenship while twelve protective police officers were whisking him away from the mine site.

People in West Virginia fear Blankenship not just because of his verbal belligerence, his intimidation of critics and workers, and his sway with campaign financed politicians and judges, but also because they believe he can get away with abuses of power, that he is beyond the reach of the law.

This time, however, the combative, anti-regulatory Blankenship is in a tight spot what with Massey’s stock dropping and his carefully cultivated image of tough guy sometime-philanthropist increasingly tarnished under a national media spotlight he cannot control or bully.

West Virginia law defines “involuntary manslaughter” as “the accidental causing of death of another person, although unintended, which death is the proximate result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life.”

In the last month, MSHA has filed a dozen citations specifically alleging the mines failure to properly ventilate the lethal, highly volatile methane gas. That is why affected people are wondering whether any district attorneys will have the will and an adequate budget to charge Massey officials with “involuntary manslaughter”, should the findings of the completed investigation meet the statutory definition. For if Blankenship, who really should resign, has anything, he has a battalion of lawyers and accommodating judges with whom to fight back. Time will tell.

8 thoughts on “Ralph Nader: ‘The Miserable State of Mine Safety’

  1. D Provencher

    Thanks to Nader, we got the Mine Health and Safety Act (though his humbleness did not give himself credit in the article) and the following:

    Ralph Nader’s Record of Accomplishments

    Instrumental in the passing of the following legislation:
    National Automobile and Highway Traffic Safety Act (1965)
    Clean Water Act (1968)
    Clean Air Act (1970)
    Co-Op Bank Bill (1978)
    Law establishing Environmental Protection Agency (1970)
    Consumer Product Safety Act
    Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
    Mine Health and Safety Act
    Whistleblower Protection Act
    Medical Devices safety
    Nuclear power safety
    Mobile home safety
    Consumer credit disclosure law
    Pension protection law
    Funeral home cost disclosure law
    Tire safety & grading disclosure law
    Wholesome Meat Act
    Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act
    Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act
    Wholesome Poultry Product Act
    Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 1970
    Safe Water Drinking Act
    Freedom of Information Act
    National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act

    Founded or sponsored the following organizations:
    American Antitrust Institute
    Appleseed Foundation
    Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest
    Aviation Consumer Action Project
    Buyers Up
    Capitol Hill News Service Center for Concerned Engineering
    Center for Auto Safety
    Center for Insurance Research
    Center for Justice and Democracy
    Center for Science in the Public Interest
    Center for the study of Responsive Law – 1969
    Center for Women Policy Studies
    Citizen Action Group
    Citizen Advocacy Center
    Citizen Utility Boards
    Citizen Works
    Clean Water Action Project
    Clearinghouse for Professional Responsibility
    Congress Project
    Congress Watch
    Congressional Accountability Project
    Connecticut Citizen Action Group
    Consumer Project on Technology
    Corporate Accountability Research Group
    Critical Mass Energy Project
    Democracy Rising
    Disability Rights Center
    Equal Justice Foundation
    Essential Information
    FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports)
    Fisherman’s Clear Water Action Group
    Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights
    Freedom of Information Clearinghouse
    Global Trade Watch
    Government Purchasing Project
    Health Research Group
    Litigation Group
    Multinational Monitor
    National Citizen’s Coalition for Nursing Home Reform
    National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest
    National Insurance Consumer Organization
    Ohio Public Interest Action Group
    Organization for Competitive Markets
    Professional Drivers (PROD)
    Professionals for Auto Safety
    Public Citizen
    Pension Rights Center
    Princeton Project 55
    PROD – truck safety
    Public Citizen’s Visitor’s Center
    Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS)
    Resource Consumption Alliance (conserve trees) 1004
    Retired Professionals Action Group
    Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest
    Tax Reform Research Group
    Telecommunications Research and Action Center

  2. Daniel Cobb

    Great article. The Massey Mining Disaster of 2010 is one of many, many mining “accidents” in coal and with mining in general. Mining is far and away the most dangerous, most destructive, and most polluting industry in the nation. Yet federal, state, and local governments have long given the industry a free pass, and “accidents” of this kind are all too common. The term “accident” implies untentional and inforseeable, without premeditation. Yet these “accidents” are entirely preventable and predictable. And herein lies the travesty. The Massey Mining Company and it’s CEO and appropriate officers are, by definition, guilty of manslaughter, 29 counts in this tragedy alone. Given the hundreds of warnings and numerous criminal mine safety violations and fines, THIS WAS PREVENTABLE and PREDICTABLE, NOT AN ACCIDENT. It is high time that Federal and State officials finally begin prosecutions, high time that the laws in force be brought to bear, so that the victims and grieving families can find the justice they have a right to. From the human tragedies to the environmental devastation wrought by this industry, mining in America is out of control and has been for several decades. It must be vigorously regulated. To you prosecutors, you regulators, you inspectors and politicians: Do your jobs! Defend the citizens you serve!
    Daniel R. Cobb

  3. Green Party Conservative

    The Green Party’s Ralph Nader ever on the job.

    Thank you for the article.

    One hopes appropriate legal charges will be brought against Blakenship and Massey.

    Even more important is a shift to solar, wind, and geothermal power, and away from fossil fuels.

    A shift to modern, more efficient, nationwide high speed rail that does not require fossil fuel.

  4. paulie Post author

    The Green Party’s Ralph Nader

    Since this falsehood has been pointed out repeatedly, you have no excuse to keep making it. Nader has never been a member of the Green Party. He accepted their presidential endorsements in 1996 and 2000 while making clear that he is not and will not be a member and is not bound by their platform.

    In 2004 and 2008 he ran as an independent, and the Greens ran their own candidates.

    And they weren’t named Nader, Bloomberg, or Chuck Baldwin.

  5. wormfarmer

    I could lament about Nader’s accomplishments, but most informed people know what he is responsible for. The enactment of various regulations regarding health and safety should be the responsibility of EVERYONE!
    The regulation of corporate behavior is crucial to the structure of our society.
    Let us be CITIZENS.

  6. neil

    Massey is very anti-union. Has threatened to shut down operations if anyone tried to unionize. He turned away union workers from another mining company that wanted to help dig out the burred miners.

  7. Green Party fan toooooo ???????! .......... Lake

    paulie // Apr 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    The Green Party’s Ralph Nader

    “Since this falsehood has been pointed out repeatedly, you have no excuse to keep making it. Nader has never been a member of the Green Party …………”

    Thank you for fighting the good fight. The truth has given up on the Democans and the Republicrats long ago. It is just a shame that it has so few friends with the Loyal Opposition and anti Establishment Duopoly!

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