Massey’s Death Traps

It was a year and six weeks ago (April 5, 2010) that 29 coal miners died in a massive explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, making it the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1970.

Yesterday, on May 19, 2011, an independent investigation commissioned by the state’s former governor reported conclusively that the accident was the result of safety violations by Massey management.  The mine was more or less a death trap.

In the investigators’ own words, “The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures.”  The message couldn’t be any plainer:  Had Massey paid as much attention to mine safety as it did to company profits, those 29 miners would still be alive.

And it wasn’t as if safety violations were alien to the company.  Indeed, Massey Energy Co. was a major accident waiting to happen.  In the previous five years leading up to the 2010 disaster, Massey had been cited for more than 1,300 safety violations by the MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration), including poor ventilation?believed to be the cause of the explosion.  In 2009 alone, Massey was cited 64 times for ventilation violations.

As Gary Hardesty, an AWPPW safety consultant, once put it, “Because maintaining a safe facility costs money, most companies see safety only as another form of overhead.”  Obviously, while Massey management bears the brunt of the blame for regarding worker safety as “overhead”?money they would just as soon not have to spend?the MSHA deserves much of the blame as well.

Blithely issuing one safety citation after another to a renegade company with a proven record of ignoring them (or getting them reduced in the appeal process) is not what a government watchdog agency is charged to do.  Mechanically going through the motions of slapping a company on the wrist, and desultorily filing the necessary paperwork, is not the same as hands-on regulation an industry’s safety practices.  The MSHA failed in its duty.

And, of course, there’s another component to this tragedy, one reflecting organized labor’s unfortunate loss of influence, not only in the industry but in the country at large.  As anyone who’s been paying attention to the mining industry since the 1970s knows, as the percentage of union-affiliated mines continues to decline, mining accidents continue to increase.  Statistics show that 92-percent of all mine accidents occur in non-union facilities.

In a CounterPunch interview I conducted a couple of years ago, Phil Smith, Communications Director of the United Mine Workers (UMW) International, made it clear that U.S. mine owners are in collusion to keep miners from seeking union representation.  And even though collusion is a cut-and-dried violation of federal labor law, one that the NLRB hasn’t seriously addressed, the companies continue to do it.  They do it through intimidation and old-fashioned black-balling.

Because coal mining is a close-knit community, once your name gets put on a company shit-list as a “union activist” or “union sympathizer,” it’s going to stay on that list, and you’re going to find it difficult to get hired anywhere.  Coal miners might be a remarkably tough breed of worker, but, tough or not, they have to work to eat, and there are only so many mining jobs to go around.

According to Phil Smith, even on those occasions when a mine does go union, companies have been known to shut down the operation, change names by selling it off to a “phantom subsidiary,” and re-open the mine as a non-union facility.  And if anyone squawks too loudly about the illegality of this arrangement, they find themselves out of a job.

So while it’s gratifying to see that Massey Energy was found guilty of egregious safety violations, it didn’t exactly come as a revelation.  Massey management knew it all along, the miners knew it, the MSHA knew it, the UMW knew it.  And the families of those 29 men knew it.  Alas, they learned it a year too late.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net




More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South