Friday, April 09, 2010

Out From Under The Rock

On Wednesday I pointed out the deadly combination of lax governmental oversight, a politically connected and profit-at-any-cost mine owner, and a non-union workforce as likely causes for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The "center left" editorial board at the Los Angeles Times has come to pretty much the same conclusion.

...What's clear from the Upper Big Branch disaster is that tough new rules put in place following the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago mine in West Virginia in 2006 still don't go far enough, and penalties imposed on mining companies that break them are too easy to evade.

The safety record of Upper Big Branch mine owner Massey Energy might be, as company executives claim, better than the industry average. But that's not saying much. Since the new regulations were imposed four years ago, federal officials have noted hundreds of violations at the mine and proposed $1.77 million in fines -- yet Massey has paid only about $365,000. That's because mine owners can appeal citations, and lawyers can drag out the adjudication process for years. The government can shut down mines with a history of significant safety violations, but such charges go on a company's record only after the appeals have been resolved. So operators can continue to run a potentially unsafe mine long after inspectors have put up red flags, which is something Congress should address. ...

Perhaps there's no connection between Blankenship's stance on labor and environmental issues and Monday's explosion. Yet disaster is the inevitable outcome when the pursuit of profits causes leaders to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence about the environmental damage of coal burning or the great, preventable dangers of coal mining. Upper Big Branch only serves as the latest reminder of that truism.
[Emphasis added]

After the Sago mining disaster, Congress acted by toughening safety requirements for mining operations, but obviously the new rules implemented by the Mining Safety and Health Administration didn't go nearly far enough. The delaying tactics used by Massey Energy and other mine owners and operators essentially nullified the changes intended to actually improve mine safety.

Now that the US Supreme Court has decided that corporations are "people" entitled to free speech, perhaps federal prosecutors should extend the ruling by charging the corporations with criminal negligence, maybe even negligent homicide. Seeing Mr. Blankenship in a yellow jump suit in court on such charges wouldn't bring back the dead miners, but it sure would send a message.



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