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Law & Order: Corporate Crime Unit

"Manslaughter," reads the United States Code, "is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice." It goes on, "Whoever is guilty of involuntary manslaughter, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six years, or both." In the disasters at the Massey coal mine in West Virginia and on the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, people were killed. Twenty-nine miners died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Eleven workers died on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which is owned by Transocean, working under contract for BP. There are state laws that govern manslaughter as well, and special language given for maritime deaths. So why aren't the executives of these companies behind bars?

Yes, these two disasters bring into sharp focus the need to reduce our national addiction to fossil fuels. The gulf oil eruption (for that is what it is, not a "spill" and not merely a "leak," but the unleashing of a hugely powerful jet of oil and gas under enormous pressure, a mile beneath the ocean surface) is likely to become the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician of the Transocean oil rig, detailed on "60 Minutes" the negligence of both Transocean and BP in the lead-up to the blowout. Williams said a mistake was made during a pressure test, which damaged a critical safety gasket, or annular. Later, a crew member reported finding chunks of the rubber gasket in the effluent that surfaces during the drilling process. This annular is part of the blowout preventer, which is the device on the ocean floor, atop the well, that is supposed to serve as the fail-safe, to prevent exactly the type of catastrophe that is unfolding now. There also was a known electrical failure on the blowout preventer.

Williams also detailed an argument aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig between the Transocean manager and the BP manager. Transocean had been hired to drill the hole and to plug it until BP returned to begin oil extraction. The argument involved how best to plug the hole.

Transocean, Williams recounted, wanted to leave a heavy mudlike substance in the well shaft, to help the concrete plugs (installed by Halliburton) stay in place. BP wanted the substance removed, ostensibly to expedite the later extraction. "BP won," Robert Bea, a University of California-Berkeley engineering professor, told "60 Minutes," and the concrete plugs failed. The damaged blowout preventer failed as well, and the disaster soon followed.

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter and lives in West Virginia. Mokhiber joined several hundred protesters Tuesday in Richmond, Va., where Massey Energy was holding its annual shareholder meeting. After the Upper Big Branch mine explosion and the resulting death of 29 miners, activist shareholders have been organizing to unseat the Massey board of directors. As the extremely contentious meeting began, two protesters in a balcony unfurled a banner reading "Massey: Stop Putting Profits Over People."

Mokhiber thinks Massey executives should be prosecuted for manslaughter. After protesting outside the Massey shareholders meeting Tuesday, he told me: "If I drive my car 90 mph in a 55-mph speed zone, and I accidentally kill someone, I am going to be charged with involuntary manslaughter, for behaving with reckless disregard for those around me. Prosecutors regularly bring these cases. If a corporation operates a workplace with reckless disregard for the safety of the workers, and those workers die as a result, those executives responsible should be prosecuted. That's why we are calling on the prosecutor of Raleigh County, W.Va., to bring this charge against Massey Energy and its responsible executives."

According to The Associated Press, federal prosecutors said they are investigating whether there was "willful criminal activity" related to the Upper Big Branch mine. BP also should face a criminal investigation. We need to pierce the corporate veil. While the civil lawsuits that will follow are likely to cost these companies some money, that is ultimately considered just the cost of doing business. When workers are killed to save time or because of unsafe working conditions, when livelihoods and the environment are destroyed, executives who make these decisions must be personally held accountable.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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