Miners’ lives bought at discount rates

February 17, 2012

Detroit—A $209 million settlement, and a record $10.8 million in fines: that’s what newspaper headlines, TV and radio news reports throughout the nation proclaimed on Dec. 7 for the mine safety violations that killed 29 coal miners on April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. It was then owned by Massey Energy and headed by the notorious safety violator Don Blankenship, known widely also for breaking unions and environmental pollution laws.

Massey Energy has been bought by Alpha Natural Resources, which paid the fines under the condition that it would not be prosecuted. This ruse is a common corporate practice: to change the name of the company involved in a national scandal to remove public remembrance of the name of the scandal originator.

The final reports of the Justice Department and the Mine Health and Safety Agency confirmed what the coal miners in that mine had known for years: that Blankenship placed coal profits far above the safety and lives of the miners. The reports revealed 369 safety violations, with nine of those being so lethal and obvious that they contributed directly to the deadly explosion.

The reports also concluded that the cause of the explosion was “unlawful policies and practices” that included worker intimidation, ignoring safety equipment failures, unlawful coal dust accumulations, inadequate air circulation and the use of two sets of safety records to hide violations, one set for safety investigators and the other with real information for the company.

That $209 million covers $35 million to pay for previous administrative penalties, $80 million for safety and infrastructure at Massey mines, $48 million for a mine health and safety trust fund and $46.5 million for families of victims of the explosion. But that $46.5 million includes $16.5 million in payment for individual lawsuits already filed. This leaves $30 million for the remaining victims, which establishes a limit on how much each individual can get.

What is more startling is the Justice Department’s announcement that Massey will not be criminally charged and will not have to admit to any wrongdoing. Clearly, the existing mine safety laws leave many loopholes for mine companies to wiggle through. Republicans in Congress and coal lobbyists have blocked all efforts to legislate stronger mine safety laws that were introduced following the Upper Big Branch explosion.

All mine safety vioations are misdemeanors under present laws. Proposed mine safety reform laws would make some safety violations a felony. New laws would also make intimidation of miners, a common practice at Massey for reporting safety violations, illegal. But there is agreement from all observers that no mine safety laws will even be allowed to come up in an election year. So miners and their families remain victims of a political system that puts politics before the lives of people.

Despite the many loopholes that coal mine operators use to escape penalties for unsafe practices, there is one criminal provision that exists to bring criminal charges against Blankenship and other Massey policymaking executives, and that is for falsifying records.

This clearly happened at the Big Branch mine. The individuals responsible for the deaths of the 29 miners and the remaining horrors the survivors must endure should all be charged with criminal offenses and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

—Andy Phillips

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