Mining Disaster in West Virginia

West Virginia Miners

This week, 25 miners lost their lives in a mine explosion at the Performance Coal Co. in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The explosion was the worst mining disaster in over two decades, if you don't count the 10,000 who have died from black lung in the past decade.

For the full article and further coverage, visit the Trial by Fire.

Rescue workers are still working around the clock to find an additional 4 miners who are still missing.

The news comes only days after five workers died at an oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington.

Massey Energy Co., the company which owns the mine, is no stranger to mining disasters. The company has been cited for hundreds of mine safety violations in recent years, and last month, they were fined three times for ventilation problems which may have led to this disaster.

In March alone, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the company's Upper Big Branch mine, where the disaster took place, for 53 safety violations.

These violations have come at a high price for the workers. In 2008, one of Massey's subsidiary companies paid the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry. They plead guilty to safety violations that killed two miners in a fire, who suffocated and died partly as a result of the company removing needed ventilation controls.

At the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, conditions were far worse. In an interview with the New York Times, miners told reporters that in the two months preceeding the disaster, workers had been evacuated three times because of dangerously high methane levels.

Andrew Tyler, an electrician who worked at the Upper Big Branch said “no one will say this who works at that mine, but everyone knows that it has been dangerous for years.”

Although it is still unclear what exactly led to the explosion, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said of the disaster: “something went very wrong here. All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”

Regulation of the Mines:

It was long known by regulators and workers alike that the conditions of the UBB mine were hazardous. Hundreds upon hundreds of violations had been found by inspectors, and workers were being evacuated monthly because of dangerously high methane levels.

As it turned out, the company's chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, was writing memo's to his staff to ignore the warnings. A 2005 memo which has resurfaced as a result of the disaster appears to encourage his deep mine superintendents to "run coal" at any cost:

Quote:
“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal.”

Indeed, the Mining Industry, in particular Massey Energy Co., has done everything in its power to flaunt safety, environmental and health regulations.

To do so, mining companies have joined together in an effort to appeal as many violations as they can,as fast as they can. In so doing, they are, as Representative George Miller of California said, "[rendering] the federal efforts to hold mine operators accountable meaningless.”

Their strategy is simply to overwhelm regulators with appeals.

The strategy is working. One in four citations issued against coal mines are now appealed. The result is an overflow of 18,000 appeals waiting to be reviewed and $210 million in contested penalties.

But simply overwhelming regulators isn't their only tactic. Mr. Blankenship also spent millions of dollars in a campaign to elect Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court. In return, the Chief Justice twice helped throw out $50 million cases against Massey Co., leading the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that from now on, judges must dismiss themselves from cases involving people who have spent large amounts of cash in their elections.

Further inquiries have been launched into a series of photographs released in 2008 showing Mr. Blankenship dining on the French Riviera with another court justice. The photographs were taken while several other cases were being heard by the judge, all involving Massey Co.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Mr. Blankenship has also contributed more than $100,000 to political campaigns in West Virginia. Associates of the company, as well as its political action committee, have spent an additional $307,000 on federal candidates.

Conclusions:

It's a simple fact of life in our economy that to own and run a successful business, you have to prioritize profit. That priority, however, is going to have different effects on different industries.

To the Barista in the downtown coffee shop, it's going to mean precarious scheduling.

To the farm laborer, it's going to mean more ICE raids.

And to the coal miner, it's going to mean increased safety risks.

Business owners must prioritize profit. Mr. Blankenship, the owner of Massey Co., demonstrates for us with great clarity the kind of sociopath that the business world sometimes creates - a man so consumed with the desire to "run more coal," that he will sacrifice 25 lives.

Large business owners like Blankenship, moreover, are more than capable of taking on both the courts and the regulators. He quite literally owns the judges who oversee his cases, and his political contributions all but guarantee tolerable legislation.

Blankenship, far from being an exception in the business world, is one of many business owners with a callous disregard for the lives of their workers.

So long as we operate in an economy based on profit instead of on human needs, we will continue to suffer these disasters, like the miners, from one generation to the next.

Hazel Dickens put it better than I could when she sang:

"How can God forgive you, you do know what you've done?

You've killed my husband now you want my son."

For the full article and further coverage, visit the Trial by Fire.

Posted By

John E Jacobsen
Apr 8 2010 20:41

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Comments

star city anarchist
Apr 9 2010 00:35

a good bourgeois media source, basically from an interview with an organizer in the community - http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/04/07/scarbro.coal.mine.tragedy/

a good statement by her organization, Coal River Mountain Watch, on whats happening - http://www.crmw.net/ (scroll down a bit)

Two things I'd just add as someone who does similar work to Coal River Mountain Watch in Virginia:

The mine safety issues underground are a big result of companies like Massey destroying the United Mine Workers in the mid 90's. They're basic process was to buy out companies have individual mines run by different companies, all owned by Massey, and to claim that the Union had to bargain with each company individually. They also pulled out of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which meant they pulled out of the national contract as well. The subsidiary strategy meant the union was legally bound(though it broke the law frequently), at least in WV, to deal with a bunch of different companies in terms of seeking contracts, in terms of who it could strike, and everything, which costs a hell of a lot more money.

Massey came into West Virginia with the intention of breaking the union and eventually it succeeded.

Underground mine safety is largely an issue for miners and their families, a massive issue since the union was broken since the standard contract under the union allowed workers to walk off the job if they felt it wasn't up to safety standards. But compounding this is the new, heavily mechanized (read: drastically smaller work force) method of Mountain Top Removal(MTR) mining where they blow the tops of mountains off and put the debris into the headwaters of streams. The explosions damage people's small homes and have even killed children here where I organize. It makes most of the water pretty much undrinkable(many people in these rural communities still use well water), and it destroys the natural setting of communities, communities that base a lot of their identity around the mountains.

Just some more things to think about, unfortunately the enviros have created a largely adversarial relationship with currently employed miners(many of the grassroots organizations fighting MTR are composed of retired union miners and the wives of similar people). the enviros are, though, working to develop localized, and in some instances worker run, businesses and industries to promote regional autonomy from the colonial grip of the coal industry.

Steven.
Apr 9 2010 10:26

hi, thanks for this article and your previous one on health-care reform: very interesting and informative. Please do keep posting your articles up here, and feel free to archive any old ones of yours as well!

John E Jacobsen
Apr 9 2010 14:10

Thanks, I'll make sure to keep them coming. And thank you star city for adding to my post - really informative.

appledoze
Apr 10 2010 06:16

If only more Americans cared about this incident, and everything else happening around them that shows how screwed up things are. But no, our media loves to keep us docile with the latest breaking news on Tiger Woods' every breath.

rttx
Apr 11 2010 19:15

Blankenship is going to have a lot to answer to, even if the government doesn't appear ready to be the ones asking the questions. It appears the lobbies win again:

Quote:
"Every industry lobbies in Washington for looser regulations. You know for less stringent federal roles. You know the telecommunications industry does it, the drilling industry does it and the mining industry of course does it."

Maybe it's me, but I can't imagine the stakes are as high for the telecom industry as they are for mining. Ask those 25+ families.