Miners' lives for profits

Miners' lives for profits

December 7th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The jobs of American coal miners are dangerous and hard enough in the best of circumstances. When safety regulations are rigged by a compliant Congress to let mine owners easily game the rules, miners' underground work can be absolutely deadly. The explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 West Virginia miners on April 5, 2010, provided the deadly proof of this cruel complicity. The $209 million payment by the mine's new owner, announced Tuesday by the government as a settlement of various civil and criminal claims growing out of the disaster, is the first step toward justice for survivors and families of the victims.

The settlement by the mine's new owner, Alpha Natural Resources, rightly does not preclude criminal prosecutions of individual executives of Massey Energy, which owned and operated the mine when the explosion occurred. Eighteen Massey managers, including Don L. Blankenship, Massey's former chief executive, all invoked 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination in refusing to be interviewed by federal investigators probing the explosion.

Whether or not trials follow, the next broad step to prevent another such disaster is reform of lax mining regulations. That will be the responsibility of congressional Republicans who wrote, and have since long protected, the industry-friendly rules that allowed this disaster to happen in the first place.

State and federal investigations into the explosion leave no doubt how the blast occurred. Massey Energy, their findings show, negligently allowed a dangerous build-up of combustible coal dust to gather in mine shafts 1,000 feet down, either through the absence or breakdown of ventilation and dust-control systems. When the levels of dust reached a critical mass, investigators found, the dust finally exploded when faulty water sprays failed to put out sparks from a cutting machine.

Miners in the Upper Big Branch had been intimidated into silence and, in some cases, into complicity with what investigators found to be Massey's routine and reckless disregard of mine safety rules. In the year before the explosion, for example, the Upper Big Branch mine was cited for a total of 515 violations in 52 inspections.

Yet because industry-friendly regulatory loopholes allowed it, Massey continued to operate the mine by filing appeals that stayed shut-down orders. In addition, investigators learned, company officials keep two sets of books on hazards, and routinely tipped off underground foremen that federal regulators were at the mine and ready to begin surprise inspections.

In a post-explosion trial, the mine's safety director, Hughie Stover, was convicted of lying to federal investigators and of ordering the destruction of files and records regarding hazardous conditions. Mine guards testified at his trial that they were told to tip mine foremen, in violation of mining laws, when safety regulators came on site, a practice that gave foremen time to correct life-threatening conditions.

Alpha's settlement provides $46.5 million in compensation and restitution to victims and families affected by the disaster. It establishes other funds, as well: $80 million will be used to improve safety and infrastructure in all underground mines owned by the company and the Massey division; another $48 million will be used to create a mining health and safety foundation; and $35 million in fees and fines will go to the Department of Labor's Mine, Safety and Health Administration.

The constructive nature of this settlement, reaching far beyond a standard payoff, should serve as a model for other settlements. It may ultimately make mining safer and effectively change the industry's methods and practices.

Congressional Republicans should do their part by standing up now in support of the reforms they have throttled. Stronger mine safety rules should give regulators the power to immediately shut-down mines that routinely violate safety standards pending resolution of appeals, to subpoena high-ranking mine officials, to protect whistle-blowers, and to mete out tougher criminal and civil fines. If they fail to impose stiffer regulations, there will be another needless fatal explosion.