Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Another Mining Disaster

It was just four years ago that news of a mining disaster hit. I thought then that perhaps we finally had hit a tipping point with respect to mine safety, Sago was that dramatic. Silly me. What appears to be a replay of the Sago disaster is playing out in West Virginia: 25 miners dead, 4 missing. The presumed cause of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine, operated by Massey Energy, was a build-up of methane gas which exploded. A sampling of news articles from the past two days provides the causes behind the cause.

First, from yesterday's NY Times:

Federal records indicate that the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations for at least six of the past 10 years. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties.

“Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields,” said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky.

Those concerns, he said, were heightened in 2006 when an internal memo written by Mr. Blankenship became public. In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.

Mine safety just isn't that important to Mr. Blankenship and many others in the mine owners caucus. Even if inspections turn up safety violations, the fines can be contested and reduced to levels which don't threaten the bottom line. The feds can be managed.

So can the state governments, as this op-ed column by Dylan Matthews for the Washington Post makes clear.

Even aside from its abysmal safety record, Massey, and its leader, Don Blankenship, are almost cartoonishly villainous in the way they approach everything from the environment to union rights to media scrutiny. They've pioneered mountain top removal mining, a particularly destructive form of mining that dirties local water supplies, ruins animal habitats, and damages the foundations of nearby houses, all while eliminating much of the Appalachians. Massey refuses to hire union workers, and thus denies its workers an advocacy group that could press for, among other things, safer ventilation systems. And Blankenship himself has been downright thuggish to critics and reporters, grabbing an ABC news camera and saying the cameraman was "liable to get shot" if he kept taking pictures.

Mr. Blankenship, however, owns West Virginia's legislature, governor, and even the state's supreme court. Bought and paid for by generous campaign donations, the state wouldn't dare cross this major Republican player.

Left out of the equation, miners go to work each day knowing that they have no back-up, that when the disaster hits, there will be a media frenzy, people will be outraged, but nothing will change. Some miners, however, those who are unionized, have a better chance at staying alive. Unfortunately for the victims of the latest disaster, the Upper Big Branch Mine isn't unionized, something that Susan Kushner Resnick noted her opinion piece for the Boston Globe this morning:

ANOTHER YEAR, another group of men killed in a coal mine. You already know the story, because it rarely changes. Inspectors discover violations. Mine operators ignore them. Miners work through the danger because they need to make a living. Gas builds up and explodes. Some men die instantly from the force of the blast, and some die from the carbon monoxide. There are always a few unaccounted for or trapped, and those mysteries keep everyone’s hope alive for a while. Then, usually, they die, too. ...

Finally, there are paychecks. If the Upper Big Branch mine had been unionized, Smith said, “our safety committee would have made sure the mine was aggressively followed up on and citations dealt with.’’

But it wasn’t. Not everyone can find a job in a union shop. But some choose to work in nonunion mines because they tend to pay better. Smith says when a union mine and a nonunion mine are located near each other, the nonunion men make a bit more per hour. What they lose, he notes, is the freedom to complain when safety is ignored. That kind of talk can lead to an escort to the door.

Ms. Resnick understands that the miners make a choice to work in a non-union mine, but it's the kind of choice that these men make so that they can take care of their families. That is hardly a sin, even if it ultimately proves to be foolish, even deadly.

The real sinners are the mine operators. Their choice to put profit ahead of safety cannot, as Ms. Resnick points out, be justified.

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