Friday, 9 April 2010

Mining tragedy in West Virginia

From Trial By Fire, an excellent labour news blog from the United States, comes an analysis of the recent mining disaster in West Virginia and how the death toll of capitalism is continuing to mount.

[So] tell them how safe the mines are today
and how to be like daddy and bring home a big pay.
Now don’t you believe them my boy, that story’s a lie -
remember the disaster at the Mannington mine
Where 78 miners were buried alive
Cos’ of unsafe conditions your daddy died.
~ Hazel Dickens – 1968
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.

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:

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.