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

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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