A Coal Miner's Catastrophe: Big Coal--Big Lies

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CommonDreams.org

A Coal Miner's Catastrophe: Big Coal--Big Lies

by
Tom Turnipseed

The worship of money is the will of God according to Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Company that owns and operates the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed on April 5 in a mining explosion.  Blankenship is a member of the US Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and a rabid, right-wing Republican.  Blankenship calls public officials concerned about climate change "greeniacs",  says "greeniacs are taking over the world," and that Al Gore, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are "crazy".   He accuses his critics of communism and atheism.

President Barack Obama says the pattern of management and oversight failures led to the mining disaster and called the company's safety record troubling.  He instructed Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Chief Joe Main to immediately send more inspectors to check a number of mines the agency believes are dangerous to ensure against conditions that might cause another disaster. On April 15, Obama said, "We all understand that underground mining is by its very nature dangerous. But we know what can cause mine explosions and we know how to prevent them. I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business,'' he continued, vowing to step up scrutiny of coal-mine safety standards.  Obama pointed out that mining regulations are riddled with loopholes that allow companies to continually put miners in harm's way. The president has demanded that MSHA "streamline the rules" for a pattern of violations orders and take steps to eliminate the backlog of appeals by mine operators.

Gov. Joe Manchin has ordered the immediate inspection of all underground coal mines in West Virginia. He also asked for the state's more than 200 underground coal mines to cease production to mourn the victims of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.  The order tells state regulators to check mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year which will be partially evacuated or closed.   In the past 18 months the Upper Big Branch mine was cited for over 600 safety violations, with 124 this year.   Several citations were for the two chief causes of mine explosions, inadequate ventilation of explosive methane gas and illegal concentrations of coal, according to Federal records.  They reveal that up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas enter the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours. The ventilation system circulates less than half the volume of air needed to keep levels of combustible coal dust and methane within a safe range.

Pat McGinley, of West Virginia University law school and coal industry expert, said,  "When a mine's ventilation system isn't working properly or there is an unacceptable accumulation of coal dust even for an hour, miners' lives are put at risk."  It appears the giant explosion was caused by a buildup of methane gas, with high levels of coal dust.  MSHA ordered the mine to temporarily cease operations at least 60 times in the last 16 months. The mine was cited for 458 violations in 2008 and 50 were  "unwarrantable failures to comply."       

An MSHA official said the mine had more than 11 times the national rate for the most serious type of safety violation. However, MSHA has not cited the Upper Branch Mine for a "pattern of violations" under the Miners Act of 2006, which allows closing the mine.

In Blankenship's weird world:   School children can inhale coal dust while playing at school because Massey Coal "already pays millions of dollars in taxes each year."   Government regulation means "we all better learn to speak Chinese."   It's ok to pay $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court just ahead of a hearing of his appeal to overturn a large damage award for driving competitor Harman Mining Corporation into bankruptcy.  It's fine to hate unions and spend millions to keep them out of Massey's workforce even if he gets sued and loses. Virtually all of the major accidents in the coal industry took place in non-union mines.

Jeff  Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, says that virtually all the major accidents and disasters have taken place in non-union mines.  He said, "Massey Energy...were part and parcel of being aggressive about breaking up the unions in the 1980s and the 1990s."

He explained that, "In a union mine, you had union fire bosses who came in, who pointed out the violations. And it was a brotherhood to really make sure that those violations were corrected and you have a safer mine, because those were members of the union that were in there."  Now less than 20 percent of coal miners belong to a union.   In seven of the last 10 years, Massey's nonfatal injury rate has been worse than the national average for similar operations.

Massey told employees that if they missed work to attend the funerals of fellow workers they would be fired.  A Massey worker, who did not give his name because he is afraid of losing his job, said that his coworkers were outraged that they were not given time off to mourn their friends and brothers. He said it was all about Massey's profits. "Is a lump of coal that valuable to you that you can't even give miners a day off to mourn their friends?"

How about a few days in jail for Blankenship who committed criminal negligence that caused the deaths of 29 coal miners?

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, South Carolina. His blog is http://tomandjudyonablog.blogspot.com/

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