Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Appalachian Tragedy by Peter A. Galuszka
On April 5, 2010 an explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, killing twenty-nine coal miners. This was the deadliest mine disaster in the United States in forty years – a disaster rooted in the cynical corporate culture of Massey and its notorious C.E.O. Don Blankenship and the endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and environmental abuse that has dominated the Appalachian coal fields since the beginning of mining in the region. It never should have happened.
The only substantive effort to bring some kind of closure to the issues brought forth at the Upper Big Branch mine is the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety Protection Act, first drawn up in 2010. It got nowhere in the House of Representatives, where it was drafted, and after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, chances of moving it forward seem nil.
The bill proposes a number of regulatory changes that would prevent the kind of Massey modus operandi of litigating every effort to cite safety infractions and enforce regulations against them. The bill would make it easier for federal regulators to take action if they can show a mine operator is chronically violating safety rules. Better ways of monitoring gas inside deep mines would be required. Miners who alert coal-firm management of possible safety violations would be spared retribution, as would any family member working with them in the mine.
Two key provisions in the bill have drawn the most fire from the industry. One would allow the the Mine Safety and Health Administration to subpoena testimony and documents in the case of a multiple-death incident. Incredibly, in the Upper Big Branch case, MSHA did not have this power. As one Democratic congressional aide points out, other federal agencies have subpoena power in matters far less serious than coal mine deaths, such as allowing the federal government to subpoena witnesses and records involving a milk marketing program. Coal-industry officials are fighting hard to keep MSHA from getting any more authority.
An even more controversial part of the Byrd bill would hold top-level corporate officials and directors of a coal firm or holding company criminally responsible if they learned their firm was operating in an unsafe way and they took no action. Such regulation would go to the heart of Massey’s behavior at the Upper Big Branch mine.
For the families of Upper Big Branch victims, the issuance of another report, and the special, private explanatory sessions with the next of kin, has become its own routine. In the beginning Massey offered $3 million to each family who lost a loved one in the disaster. The new deal between Alpha Natural Resources, the new owner of the Upper Big Branch, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Charleston pays a floor settlement of $1.5 million to each of the families of the dead miners as well as to the two miners injured in the blast. Assuming that each family got both payments, they would still amount to about $130 million, or the cost of about two and a half longwall mining machines.
Looking at in another way, the top executives and directors of Massey Energy were together paid nearly $196 million just to go along with the sale of their firm to Alpha. C.E.O. Don Blankenship got more than $86 million, not including several properties along with legal and medical insurances. President Baxter F. Phillips got a parachute valued at $45 million, an Chris Adkins wound up with an $11 million parachute. For his troubles guiding Massey through the days after the disaster, setting up Blankenship for his departure, and putting together the sell-out to Alpha, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman got a final package worth nearly $10 million.
Large questions remain about how Massey Energy got away with such lax and ineffective regulatory supervision for so many years and why the cycle of poverty and exploitation never seem to get broken in Central Appalachia. With bipartisan gridlock in Washington and push to deregulate and cut government spending, little will be done in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch to give miners the protection they need. Self-seeking companies such as Alpha may enter into voluntary reform agreements with prosecutors but whether the terms of these agreements are fulfilled in the long run is another question. The record is not encouraging but even if they hold, they involve only one firm, not the industry as a whole.
The system and regulators such as MSHA were too inept structurally and operationally to prevent the Upper Big Branch explosion, and the Alpha deal really does nothing about that deficiency. Federal mine-safety regulators still won’t be able to subpoena documents or witnesses. Monetary fines simply won’t be enough to change potentially deadly behavior. Highly paid coal executives and their boards will still be able to dodge criminal prosecution if they know of safety issues and do nothing. Repeat offenders like Massey Energy will still be able to game the system. In short, even after the terrors of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is still business as usual in the coal fields.