Yesterday it was confirmed. The last four missing miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal West Virginia were found dead. That puts the death toll of this most recent mining tragedy at 29, the worst mining disaster in the United States in over 25 years. But this tragedy could have been predicated and should have been prevented. The history of the Upper Big Branch mine, Massey Energy and company CEO Don Blankenship reads like an early 20th century muckraking novel about the evils of capitalism.
Here is just a taste of the story...
Since 1995 there have been more than 3,000 safety violations at Upper Big Branch. Of the $1.5 million in penalties Massey has racked up since 2007, the company has actually paid less than $300,000 in fines. Last year, the mine faced $900,000 in fines for more than 450 violations. Just in 2010, the company had been charged with another $190,000 in fines. In 2008 Massey Energy was fined $20 million dollars by the EPA for violations of the clean water act, the largest fine in the acts history. Massey regular pollutes streams and rivers with its mountain top removal mining operations.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the company seems to be able to get away with such a long list of fines and violations and continues to operate, is the cash CEO Don Blankenship is willing to spend on right wing politics. He spent 3 million dollars to defeat a West Virginia judge in an election in 2004 because the judge was likely to decided in favor of a $50 million dollar fine against Massey Energy. Not surprisingly, the judge Blankenship helped elect voted in favor of the company. In 2009 Blankenship spent $1 million to help sponsor a huge “Friends of America” rally in West Virginia. “Friends of America” is a right wing organization similar to the tea party groups we have seen rallying around the country as of late.
Another important piece of the picture is the incredible weakness of the Mine Safety and Health Administration which, like many government agencies whose mission it is to protect the public, was all but eliminated during the Bush years. We have also witnessed an increasing move by mine owners to open non-union operations. At this point only 20% of miners in the U.S. are members of the United Mineworkers of America. Union membership and mine safety are closely connected. All of the mine disasters in recent years have occurred at non-union mines. Blankenship was quite proud of the fact that most of Massey’s mines, including the Upper Big Branch mine are non-union. And this isn’t the first time that Massey’s operations have cost miners their lives. In 2006 a fire at the Aracoma mine in Logan County, WV, took the lives of two miners.
And if all this wasn't enough, above the towns of Coal River Valley sits a massive retention pond of coal slur. The product of strip mining. If this retention pond was to fail, as other have in the past, the people of the Coal River Valley will have 15 minutes to evacuate before the slurry wipes out their towns, including an elementary school and a high school.
Over the past week, the mainstream media has shed some light on the evils of the coal industry, as its seems willing to do only when the industry has cost workers their lives. The clearest critical voice to emerge from the media coverage is that of Jeff Biggers. Jeff, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland comes from a family with a long history in the coal mining regions of Southern Illinois. You can here an interview with Jeff on this Monday's episode of Labor Express Radio.
Jeff maintains a number of blogs. Much of the facts I provide in this blog entry come from Jeff's writings over the past week. Links to all of his blogs can be found at his website...
You can purchase a copy of Jeff's book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek here...