The Heartbreaking Upper Big Branch Mine Settlement
Clay Mullins in West Virginia:
“It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men...”
Two hundred ten million dollars. It sounds like a lot of money. It’s blood money of course, and on one level it represents business as usual in coal country: mine disasters occur because no one is looking out for the little guy, and then some corporate entity pays.
Then there’s Gary Quarles, father of dead miner Gary Wayne Quarles, "I'm the same right now as I was when I found out that he was dead, and I can't see it changing, no matter how much money — if there's any — that comes our way or how many people go to jail. That's not gonna help me."
It’s an unending cycle of heartbreak and epic failure of the regulatory mechanisms we are supposed to expect in a democracy. But democracy is diminished in coal country, isn’t it? Coal. Increasingly clean coal. That’s the sponsorship tagline I have regularly heard on NPR of all places. The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was more than a disaster. It was an ongoing criminal enterprise. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who announced the settlement said “our investigation has revealed criminal conduct.” But he didn’t say if charges would follow and he didn’t say who might be charged, especially whether it might include the name on everyone’s lips in West Virginia: former Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship, the “criminal mastermind” behind the mine’s failure.
Some close to the industry did not mince words. Former Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) official Tony Oppegard said:
You have an enforcement agency that had to know this was an outlaw operation and they did not use the stringent enforcement tools they had which possibly could have prevented the disaster.
The measure of these words is astounding. People close to the regulatory mechanisms don’t talk like that. They talk like this:
We did shut the mine down 48 times in the year leading up to the explosion. What we don't have is the ability to say because you received so many orders we're going to shut you down permanently.
That’s current MSHA coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin. He conveniently omits the fact that MSHA could have hauled Massey Energy into federal court but chose not to. Why? An insidious ethos that has permeated state and federal environmental regulatory agencies for the better part of a decade: the initiative to work with industry, to coax, to cajole, to be a friend to industry—and not to upset the apple cart. It’s all part of regulatory capture. In this case, it caused the unnecessary deaths of 29 miners. It was Russian roulette, but the gun was in Massey management’s hands, pointed at the miner’s heads. Ah, to squeeze just a little more profit out of the operation.
Image: Les Stone / firstname.lastname@example.org
Where, I wonder, are those who say corporations are people too, at a moment like this? Where are those that say industry will regulate itself at a moment like this? You see, some amazing things are happening here. For one, corporate person Massey Energy is no more. Have a little run-in with disaster and poof; get bought out by a new corporate entity, Alpha National Resources. Alpha National Resources is officially blameless. And Massey can’t die, can’t be sent the penitentiary.
It’s officers can, however, be charged, based on probable evidence of criminal negligence at the very least. And people are watching. Former UMWA President Richard Trumka said, as reported by Charleston Gazette’s longtime coal country reporter Ken Ward, Jr., “We await jail time for the culpable. The only way to make a real down payment on justice is to ensure the guilty serve appropriately stiff jail sentences.”
Blankenship, meanwhile, if you can believe this, having left Massey around the time of its sale is now said to be launching a new coal company named after the family name of his mother: McCoy Coal Group Inc.
Lessons from Another Disaster
I recently heard Bethany McLean, co-author of All the Devils Are Here, a book on the origins and causes of the economic meltdown, speaking at the Commonwealth Club. She pointed out that those who blamed lack of regulation for the meltdown were only partly right. No-doc home buyers, home-as-ATM-borrowers, Wall Street types, securities bundlers, Congress and the regulatory apparatus were all to blame. It’s not enough to just have laws on the books, she said. Well, duh. What it takes is the will, the capacity and the commitment to enforce the laws on the books. That would go a long way in every case, I believe. But that’s not the way of regulatory capture.
In the case of Massey Energy, Blankenship actually bought a member of the West Virginia Supreme Court. He had ready access to the Governor’s mansion—that would be then-Governor now-Democratic (in name at least) Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin was a huge advocate for the prerogatives of coal. West Virginia was rigged in Big Coal’s favor top to bottom to a degree that the most egregious mining conditions in this country in this century went unchecked. Go back and follow Ken Ward Jr.’s coverage in the Coal Tattoo/Charleston Gazette blog and you’ll see that. All the locals will tell you the miners worked in great fear of losing their jobs for speaking out. Ask Gary Quarles.
Ward himself wishes he had dug deeper, writing yesterday:
And maybe the rest of us in the media have missed an important story by not writing more about Massey’s union-busting efforts, their possible impacts on miner safety (an issue Mike Elk tackled for In These Times), and whether Alpha’s attitudes toward unions are similar to Massey’s.
Defacto deregulation always works until it doesn’t. And the tragedy of our bought-and-paid for system of government is that it’s clear for all to see—all our train wrecks are slow-mo. Everyone knew West Virginia was on the take from Big Coal, led by Massey. I have sat in kitchens in Charleston and had lawyers tell me, “You just don’t understand,” no matter what tactic I offered as a slim strategy for change.
Yesterday, according to AP, Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex is among the dead said, “It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men, and I'm not satisfied one bit.”
What is crystal clear from the Upper Big Branch debacle is that laws on the books don’t matter without the real ability to enforce them. When legislators and governors are in cahoots with what amounts to criminal enterprises we have recourse only to the courts or the streets. Both options only get you a little bit of what you what, which, I believe, is justice.
Meanwhile, those closest to harm’s way, the miners and their families, don’t dare open their mouths. It’s a free country, I guess. The miners are free to leave their ancestral homes, their way of life and seek work in Cincinnati, Louisville, Charleston or wherever. But what we have lost… And the astonishingly cheap cost of real lives in the balance—lives too cheap at two hundred ten million a pop. This is life in our great national sacrifice zone, where they produce increasingly clean coal. No, that’s not dirt on the industry’s hands. It’s blood.
Image: Les Stone / email@example.com
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Grateful acknowledgment to Open Salon's Les Stone, who offered these images from his collection from the Upper Big Branch Mine memorial. See more at his site. Click on his avatar in my favorites section above or go to:
UPDATE 12/9: NPR's Morning Edition is airing breaking news on Massey Energy and MSHA negligence as aspects of the cause of the blast. The report is not up on their web site yet but you can find more background here: http://www.npr.org/series/131960177/massey-mine-investigation