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How Greedy Deregulation Killed Miners

By Kevin Zeese
April 16, 2010

Editor’s Note: The major U.S. news media – from NBC News to the New York Times – has dealt generously with Tea Party activists in recent days, giving extensive and mostly uncritical coverage to relatively small demonstrations, a marked contrast to the hostility shown toward the massive anti-war protests before the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Yet, the Tea Partiers may be just the best-marketed astro-turf organization of all time, fronting for corporate interests that want unfettered power over the lives of Americans, much as Tea Party supporter Don Blankenship wanted government regulators out of his hair as he ran coal from the Upper Big Branch Mine:

Were it not for the deliberate actions of Don Blankenship and Massey Energy the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia would not have occurred.

These deaths were foreseeable, even predicted, and this is not the first time Massey has caused the deaths of miners.

Massey Energy has been fined millions of dollars for its violations of mine safety and has already settled one case where miners were killed with criminal and civil fines totaling more than $4 million.

As has now become painfully apparent, it is time to stop coddling these corporate criminals and hold them accountable, no more slaps on the wrists for their actions and neglect.

Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, the site of the deaths, has been cited 1,342 times for safety violations since 2005. And, 86 of those violations were for an inadequate ventilation plan that prevents the very type of explosions that caused these deaths. 

Last year alone, Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine was cited for 495 violations and $911,802 in fines. So far this year, regulators have found 105 violations at the mine. Twelve of those citations were issued in the last month. 
The same day of the explosion, the Upper Big Branch mine was hit with two additional safety violations.

According to The New York Times: “In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

“Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records.”

So, Massey was well aware of the inadequate ventilation that led to the explosion that killed the miners. It will not be the first time that Massey was guilty of actions that led to death. 

In 2008, Massey’s subsidiary Aracoma Coal was charged by the Department of Justice with willful violation of mandatory safety standards, one count resulting in the death of two miners, and with making a false statement.

Massey settled these criminal charges along with civil violations for $4.2 million in criminal and civil penalties -- the largest financial settlement in the coal industry's history. The corporation pled guilty to criminal mine safety violations that led to the deaths. 

Testimony showed Blankenship suggested firing two supervisors for raising concerns about safety problems with the conveyer belt just before the belt caught fire, causing the deaths.

This also wasn’t the first time miners have died at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Since 1998, three other miners have died there.

All of this confirms the conclusion of Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and former head of the United Mine Workers of America, put forward: "This incident isn't just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct."

But Blankenship emphasizes that “coal pays the bills,” and in a 2005 memo he told mine workers that if their bosses ask them to take safety precautions like building roof supports or performing similar tasks, "ignore them and run coal."

Terry Holstein, who worked at Upper Big Branch until 2006, quitting after 10 years because he didn't like the way Massey ran the mine, says "they wanted production more than they wanted safety."

Before the latest mine disaster, the federal government also tended to shy away from a confrontation with the politically influential coal industry. In June 2009, David Akrush of Public Citizen warned the White House: "Every day that these safety violations go unresolved, the chance that this nation will see another tragic mining accident grows."

Federal and state investigations have finally begun. They will examine the debris in the mine and interview miners and company officials, as well as review documents related to the mine. Hindsight will be helpful but, people saw this tragedy coming.

Even investors are now calling for Blankenship to be removed as CEO. CtW Investment Group sent a letter to the Massey Energy board citing Blankenship’s “confrontational approach to regulatory compliance” as the cause of the deaths.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, overseer of New York’s Common Retirement Fund, which owns 303,550 shares of Massey stock valued at $14.1 million, said “Massey’s cavalier attitude toward risk and callous disregard for the safety of its employees has exacted a horrible cost on dozens of hard-working miners and their loved ones.”

It is time for accountability. Massey’s Board should immediately remove Blankenship, and state and federal authorities should hold him responsible for the gross negligence of Massey Energy toward mine safety. It is time for this repeat offender to be put out of business, if not into jail.

Kevin Zeese is executive director of ProsperityAgenda.US, working with Velvet Revolution, whose campaign has called for Blankenship to be charged criminally.  

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