On a Cross of Coal

“I think that I’ve proven that we run safer mines?you know, most of the time?and accidents sometime happen.”

?Don Blankenship (Cincinnati Enquirer, 4-7-10)

Just when we thought Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (in Montcoal, West Virginia) mining disaster of April 5, 2010, which killed 29 coal miners, couldn’t elicit any more tears or regrets or disgust or outrage, we find out how wrong we were.

Even after an independent investigation commissioned by the state’s former governor reported (on May 19, 2011) that the accident had been the clear result of safety violations, even after we learned that Massey had been cited for more than 1300 safety violations in the five years leading up to the explosion, and even after we concluded, bitterly, that Massey was guilty of wanton carelessness and recklessness?we find that we had aimed way too low.

It turns out that Massey executives were not only negligent, they were calculatingly criminal.  On June 28, federal investigators announced they had discovered that Massey Energy was keeping two sets of books (safety logs).  One log reflected actual mine conditions, which, alas, were demonstrably unsafe, and the other log was a fictionalized showpiece, a veritable Potemkin village, used to mislead government safety inspectors.

Maybe our first order of business should be to change the nomenclature.  Given that Massey knew of the unsafe conditions and not only failed to address them, but attempted to conceal them from the very inspectors whose job it was to protect the miners from injury, we should no longer refer to the Big Branch explosion as an accident, disaster or tragedy.  We should refer to it as “manslaughter.”

Also, let’s not forget that the mining industry continues to lobby the U.S. government to reduce its safety regulations, arguing that the industry can “police itself,” and that under the free enterprise system, America’s businesses should be entitled to earn an honest dollar without intrusive government interference.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers support deregulation.

Earlier this month, Massey Energy sold its operation to another company, Alpha Natural Resources.  Alpha management has said that it knew nothing of the double-books and was looking into the allegations.  As for the Massey folks, citing Fifth Amendment protection, eighteen Massey officials (including CEO Don Blankenship) have so far refused to testify in the investigation.

Even though Massey Energy’s Big Branch mine was a non-union operation, the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) has agreed to represent the miners in the investigation.  And while it gives no one any satisfaction to point out the obvious, union mines have significantly better safety records than non-union facilities.  Why?  Because with the UMWA representing them, miners can’t be ignored, particularly when it comes to safety concerns.  Union miners have a legally established, recognized voice.

On June 29, I spoke by telephone with Phil Smith, the UMWA Communications Director.  Although he didn’t wish to discuss the Massey revelations until after UMWA president Cecil Roberts had the opportunity to make an official statement (which Roberts did later that afternoon), Smith did tell me that the U.S. Department of Labor’s MHSA (Mine Health and Safety Administration) had improved greatly over the last year and a half.

Part of the credit for that improvement goes to the Obama administration for having appointed Joe Main to run the agency.  Arguably, no one in the country knows more about mine safety than Joe Main, who started out as a coal miner himself, way back in 1967, and eventually rose to become the UMWA’s safety guru.  So instead of some bureaucratic pencil-pusher, the MHSA now has an actual ex-miner looking out for the well-being of other miners, which is exactly what that industry needs.

Unfortunately, two sets of books isn’t totally unheard of in the mining business.  In 2001, at a coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama, two sets of books were found after an explosion killed 13 miners.  The Bush administration chose not to file criminal charges.

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



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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

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