Mines have spurned safety for too long
One faction of the Tea Party will gather on the mall in Washington, D.C., this week on Tax Day. They will rail against big government, intrusive regulations, taxes and spending.
On Monday, people across the country observed a moment of silence for the tragic loss of 29 lives at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. The nation’s worst mining disaster in over four decades took place at a mine that had been cited for literally hundreds of violations over the last year, including many serious ones.
Will we ever learn? Mining is an inherently dangerous occupation. According to the United Mine Workers of America, in the last century more than 100,000 miners were killed due to mine disasters. More than 100,000 died from black lung disease by breathing coal dust. Even today, a coal miner dies every six hours from black lung disease, and these numbers are rising again.
We know how to limit the risks. It takes enforcement of strong regulations because safety costs time and money that owners don’t like to spend. It takes strong unions because even the most vigilant regulators can’t enforce safety laws as well as organized workers on the ground. And it takes executives who know they will be held accountable for trampling safety rules.
None of these was operating at the Upper Big Branch. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, created in 1978, is a notoriously weak agency. It has no subpoena power. The fines it levies are small and often go uncollected. Its criminal sanctions are pathetic: Deliberate violations of safety standards that lead to deaths are at best treated as misdemeanors.
There was no union at the Upper Big Branch mine. The Massey Energy Co., which owns it, is a viciously anti-union operation, notorious for discriminating against hiring miners who are members of the union.
And the executives at Massey aren’t accountable. CEO Don Blankenship basically treats the law with contempt, and treats fines as a minor cost of doing business. A huge figure in West Virginia, he’s spent millions trying to buy the state Legislature.
Massey appealed at least 37 of the 50 citations for serious violations that it received last year. This is an industrywide practice to frustrate regulation. Mine owners now contest two-thirds of all fines.
In the coal industry of Appalachia, decency has always been resisted. These mines initially operated with a version of chattel slavery. Workers were paid in scrip, lived in company housing and had to shop in company stores. Cecil Roberts, current president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me how his father had to have permission simply to leave the camp to see his family.
The battle to create unions was fiercely and violently resisted. The effort to clean up the mines and enforce safety regulations is resisted to this day.
This is worth remembering as angry Tea Party members gather on the Mall to rail against intrusive government. A lot of the money and the leadership come from corporations rousing the fears of people to protect the crony capitalism that they profit from. Public Citizen recently reported that of the 150 former legislators who have registered as lobbyists, 79 have banks as clients. This includes not just Dennis Hastert, former leader of House Republicans, and Dick Gephardt, former leader of House Democrats, but also Dick Armey, former House Republican whip who is one of the leaders of the Tea Party rallies.
And when the Tea Party held its big “Friends of America” rally last Labor Day, one of the speakers was none other than Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who contributed $1 million to sponsor the event.
The plight of coal miners is beyond the base about manipulation, law and profits. It’s a matter of morality in how we treat these coal miners, and is a test of our national character. At such tender ages, they deserve futures, not funerals.
Will we ever learn? The answer should not be too late, too late.