The nation had barely recovered from the shock of the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia that killed 12 miners, only to learn just weeks later of two more deaths at an Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. Just last week, two more workers died in two separate West Virginia mines, one a Long Branch Energy mine and the other owned by Massey Energy. According to the United Mine Workers of America, that brings the total number of mining fatalities just this year to 18.
As the sadness sets in, disturbing information about the mines’ safety conditions continues to come out. The Sago mine had over 200 safety citations last year, 96 considered “significant and substantial.” The Aracoma mine received more than 90 citations in 2005, seven of them in December when the mine was cited for items concerning the control of coal dust and other combustible material and its ventilation plan. The two mines where workers died yesterday also had a significant number of violations last year. The Long Branch Energy mine reportedly had a nonfatal incident rate for worker injuries of 14.5 last year, almost triple the national rate.
Mining is a particularly dangerous job, but it’s not the only one. Every day, millions of workers subject themselves to hazardous situations in order to feed their families, sometimes risking their lives. There are two ways we try to protect workers from unsafe conditions in this country. One is through government regulation. When that fails, we hold corporations accountable in court.
Agencies such as the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) exist to regulate and enforce worker safety. But as we unfortunately know, this doesn’t always work. Part of the problem is that agencies have become political and tied in with industry – thus, less effective. During the first term of the Bush administration, the MSHA rescinded more than a half-dozen safety proposals under the leadership of David Lauriski, a former industry lobbyist. There were also major cutbacks in agency budgets and the number of inspectors, reducing enforcement. Another problem is that safety violation fines are often miniscule compared to company profits and can easily be written off as a “cost of business” – more economical than improving the safety conditions.
With regulatory oversight of mining and other industries so weakened, the right to bring reckless corporations to court is more precious than ever. There are countless examples of corporations improving safety conditions and products because of lawsuits brought by injured people. A typical example occurred in 2001 in Wyoming County, West Virginia when a worker was killed at a U.S. Steel Mining Co. coal processing facility due to faulty scaffolding equipment. As a result of the lawsuit, the dangerous equipment was removed. In another 2003 West Virginia case, a jury found that a coal processing facility run by the Elk Run Coal Co., a Massey Energy subsidiary, failed to protect the community against air pollution. As a result of a lawsuit brought by residents of the town of Sylvester who had been harmed by escaping coal dust, the court enforced a dust control plan on the company.
The civil justice system is the only reliable means of deterring dangerous corporate behavior. A negligible fine doesn’t send the same message as a substantial verdict against a reckless company. Thus, it may come as no surprise that corporate lobbyists, having already made tremendous strides in weakening regulatory safety standards, are putting enormous resources into weakening our courts and attacking judges and juries – and they’re winning. West Virginia, in fact, was recently declared a so-called “judicial hellhole” by the American Tort Reform Association, a group funded by polluters, tobacco companies, the insurance industry, and other industries. The report’s purpose was to attack judges and juries who have held companies accountable for harming or killing innocent citizens.
In 2004, Warren McGraw, a West Virginia Supreme Court judge known as a friend of working families, was ousted from the bench in a vicious campaign largely funded by corporate interests and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A major contributor to McGraw’s opponent was Don Blankenship, head of Massey Industries, the fourth largest coal producer in the United States. At the time, Massey was expected to appeal a large verdict against it to that very same court.
As stories of corporate and governmental malfeasance abound, it is deplorable that business groups devote their resources to campaigns to weaken the court system instead of working to prevent injuries and deaths and eliminate the need for lawsuits in the first place. Working toward better safety for workers and consumers is a win-win for everyone, and is the right thing to do.
Laurie Gindin Beacham is the Communications Director of the Center for Justice & Democracy.