Branch coal mine at Montcoal, West Virginia, which so far has cost 25
miners' lives, is another reminder of the immense human and
environmental cost of this fuel.
More coal miners have lost their lives from cave-ins, explosions and
lung disease since 1900 than all the Americans who died in World War II.
The devastation extends to chronic sickness from breathing coal dust
and to maimed coal miners, often seen walking on crutches in the hollows
During our struggle in the late sixties and seventies to get Congress to
authorize the federal government to regulate these pugnacious
corporations, and protect among the most defenseless workers in our
country (try working 700 to 1800 feet underground six days a week), coal
company executives perpetuated a culture tolerant of safety violations.
Coal companies are known for greasing their way with political campaign
contributions, gross underpayments of property taxes and intimidation
of people in poor coal mining country who had few alternative employment
Safety and health improvements finally came from the forces of the law
(especially the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969) and from an
awakened United Mine Workers union. The safety efforts have had to
overcome industry lawyers, lobbyists, corporate cover-ups, refusals to
pay fines and other misbehavior stemming from unaccountable corporate
bosses sitting in fancy offices far from the coal fields.
Half of the nation's coal companies were fined a modest total of $7
million under the first Bush Administration for faking coal dust samples
in 847 underground mines. This is just a cost of doing business instead
of a serious deterrent to an epidemic of deadly coal miners
Until new leadership came under Joseph Main in 2009 to run the Mine
Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Richard L. Trumka, former coal
miner and head of the United States Mine Workers (UMW) union and now
president of the AFL-CIO, said that George W. Bush converted "MSHA from
an enforcement agency to a business consulting group" to King Coal.
With the sharp decline of UMW workers, as non-union strip-mining
expands, studies have shown a consistently better safety record of
unionized coal mines. The devastated Massey mine was non-union.
The media, which rushes to the scene of mining disasters while ignoring
interim warning reports such as ours in 2008, knew who to interview. He
was Massey's defiant, outspoken, arrogant CEO Don Blankenship, whose
Montcoal mine was cited by MSHA over 500 times in 2009-2010 for safety
violations, including the kinds of violations suspected in the explosion
on April 5th. Two citations came on the very day of the calamity. The
paltry $1 million in fines covered more than 50 "unwarrantable failure"
violations. Among the most serious were citations for problems with
escape routes and air quality ventilation.
In 2006 another Massey mine, Aracoma Alma No. 1, was recommended
for shutdown by a government inspector, who was over-ruled. The
subsequent fatal fire killed two miners and led to a guilty plea for 10
criminal mine safety violations, a $2.5 million fine. Massey also paid
the federal government $20 million to settle charges of violating water
pollution controls in 2008.
J. Davitt McAteer, the former MSHA Administrator, called the Massey
conglomerate "certainly one of the worst in the industry" from a safety
standpoint. CEO Blankenship, of course, denies McAteer's and other
workers and inspectors' assessments. "Violations are unfortunately a
normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal
mine in America."
Tell that to the grieving families, some of whom yelled at Blankenship
while twelve protective police officers were whisking him away from the
People in West Virginia fear Blankenship not just because of his verbal
belligerence, his intimidation of critics and workers, and his sway with
campaign financed politicians and judges, but also because they believe
he can get away with abuses of power, that he is beyond the reach of
This time, however, the combative, anti-regulatory Blankenship is in a
tight spot what with Massey's stock dropping and his carefully
cultivated image of tough guy sometime-philanthropist increasingly
tarnished under a national media spotlight he cannot control or bully.
West Virginia law defines "involuntary manslaughter" as "the accidental
causing of death of another person, although unintended, which death is
the proximate result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to
show a reckless disregard for human life."
In the last month, MSHA has filed a dozen citations specifically
alleging the mines failure to properly ventilate the lethal, highly
volatile methane gas. That is why affected people are wondering whether
any district attorneys will have the will and an adequate budget to
charge Massey officials with "involuntary manslaughter", should the
findings of the completed investigation meet the statutory definition.
For if Blankenship, who really should resign, has anything, he has a
battalion of lawyers and accommodating judges with whom to fight back.
Time will tell.