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.