Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2015 9:08 am
Lost amid the raucous presidential primary and tragedy of recent terrorist attacks across the globe is a key development near our own backyard regarding coal mining. It’s a clear illustration of Congress’ blatant disregard for the American worker, and his safety.
Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, was convicted last week of a misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations stemming from the death of 29 miners in a mine explosion April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch mine in Naoma, W.Va. He faces up to a year in prison, as well as fines.
And while Blankenship and his team of high-priced D.C. attorneys avoided conviction on three felony counts, last week’s decision marked the first time in American history a mining operator had been held responsible for the death of mining employees. Additionally, Massey executive David Hughart was sentenced to 42 months in jail following sentencing in 2013 for his role in the tragedy. Several others, all the way down to the superintendent, received jail time, and nearly $209 million in settlement money was ordered to be paid to families in the wake of the largest mining disaster on U.S. soil since explosions in a Hyden, Ky. mine killed 38 miners in 1970.
Massey’s reputation prior to the Upper Big Branch disaster was well documented, however little was done to rein in the energy producer.
The first investigative report — produced by an independent team of investigators appointed by former W.Va. Gov., now U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and led by former mine safety Chief Davitt McAteer — was clear in its blame. “Massey exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety,” it read. “Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion to occur.”
The report also blasted the MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, noting, “The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that (MSHA) failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners.”
During the trial, Blankenship was noted for having an especially hands-on role related to the day-to-day operations of the Upper Big Branch Mine, which generated an estimated $2.3 billion in revenue in 2009, the year prior to the explosion. Blankenship, during testimony, was said to have demanded increased output at the expense of safety.
While there are those who are pleased to see some level of accountability for those in power, many have expressed disappointed in Congress for not taking this opportunity to step up efforts to increase safety in notoriously dangerous occupation of mining.
“All mining safety legislation is written in the blood of miners,” said Tony Oppegard — a Kentucky attorney who has represented numerous miners over the years — in the wake of the Blankenship conviction. “When you have a major accident like Upper Big Branch, that’s the time when you think something should be done. Those miners died in vain.”
Congress hadn’t always been this callous.
Mining disasters in 1968 and 1976 jolted Congress to take action after decades of mining accidents had claimed thousands of American lives.
The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, known as the Coal Act, was ushered in following an underground mine explosion in 1968 at a Farmington, W.Va. mine that claimed the lives of 78 miners. With the Coal Act came the creation of the aforementioned Mining Health and Safety Administration.
The Federal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1977 amended the Act of 1969 in the wake of yet another mining disaster, the Scotia Mine disasters of March 1976. Explosions on March 9 and 11 claimed the lives of 26 miners in the Kentucky mine. The initial explosion killed 15 and the subsequent explosion killed 11 attempting to rescue the miners.
As is often the case, such disasters are necessary to spur Congress into action. The new laws did indeed create safer conditions for miners and were credited with reducing miner deaths by almost half into the 1980s.
Given Massey’s history of ignoring regulations, one would think Congress would step up efforts to more stringently enforce regulations and step up inspection efforts.
However, there’s a reason those on Capitol Hill have earned the moniker as the “Do-Nothing Congress” and Blankenship’s deep pockets and influence went a long way in state houses and Washington.
As we’ve seen over the years, dismal approval ratings in Congress is no deterrent, nor are they an impetus to enact meaningful change.
When one considers its lack of action on any number of issues regarding the safety and well-being of Americans — from mining to guns to veterans issues — Congress has a reputation well-earned.
Those in Congress should be ashamed of themselves.
Those of us who elect representatives to Congress need to take more of an initiative to remind those on Capitol Hill that they do indeed work for us, and that we demand action on matters of such vital national interest.
Legislation protecting American workers needn’t be written in the blood of dead Americans. But, as we’ve seen far too often, it has been.
Sadly, now the blood of Americans isn’t even enough for Congress to act.
Chris Brady is managing editor at the Standard Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org