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The Mother Lode in the Upper Big Branch Mine

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Massey's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine tragedy brings the core question conservatives ask us to ignore front and center: What role has government to play in the regulation of a society's otherwise private affairs?

John Donne may have put it both most succinctly and poetically: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." In other words, I need others, I depend on others, and even more so on others I do not know and never will meet. I depend on them for every consequent part of my life and continuation in it.

I do not grow the food that feeds my family. Nor do I know who does grow the food that feeds my family. The suppliers of my food stores span the globe. I don't know who compounded the pharmacologic drugs that stave off the ailments and pain that would bring me down. And if I did, what good would that do me? I'm no bio-chemist. I have no idea who built the bridges I drive over each day while fulfilling my daily chores. Indeed, I've no clue how to begin going about constructing a bridge, one that will sustain the variety of stresses it must sustain . . . for decades. I'm not an engineer.

In these and in almost every realm I can imagine I am helpless in the pursuit of some measure of safely pursuing my life. I depend on others; their expertise, their integrity, and their good will, the suspicion they will not cut corners in such a way that endangers my health and well being. I and everyone else in every society has the right to maintain those affirming suspicions, even though they may pass unspoken. They're the glue that holds societies together and enables human life to persevere.

If even a brief and casual review of history has shown us anything useful, it is that there are and likely ever will be scoundrels in our midst; some or many of which have, in their single-minded chase of personal wealth, no concern about the genuine harm they heap on others en route to the satisfaction of their desires. (It's the reason we lock our doors and windows when we're headed on vacation, and our car doors when we go shopping.) As if one was necessary, just one example, and a follow-up:

Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker -- known collectively as "the Big Four" -- were the private-venture capitalists who saw the profit to themselves that would accrue from the realization of Theodore Judah's transcontinental railroad plans. To dynamite the passes over and the tunnels through the granite Sierra Nevada they imported thousands of Chinese. Beyond "many", no one knows how many Chinese died, blasting the path that would make the Big Four wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. No one kept a tally. That's because no one cared -- they were Chinese. And there was money to be made, and a schedule to be kept.

Massey Energy owns UBB in Coalmont, West Virginia, the site where 25 miners are known dead and where efforts to rescue four hope-for survivors have repeatedly been stalled by the presence of dangerous gasses in the shafts. Here is what we know concerning Massey. Since January, 2009, MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with regulating mine safety) ordered the evacuation of UBB 64 times because of safety violations. A former regulator, Tony Oppegard, said of UBB, the mine's record is "off the charts." In 2009 the mine was cited 495 times for safety issues, and so far this year the running total has reached 105. This March, a four-mile long tunnel was shown to be "circulating less than half the volume of air intended to keep levels of combustible coal dust and methane within a safe range."

Twenty-five miners dead, four more quite likely, and in 2005 Don Blankenship, Massey's CEO wrote a memo to the workers, part of which stated, "If your bosses ask you to build roof supports or perform similar tasks, ignore them and run coal."

Ponder quitting? Is working the mines, regardless that the conditions may prove unnecessarily hazardous, really a personal choice? You have a very limited education with skills that have virtually no applicability outside of mining, and you have a wife and family who depend on the paycheck you get from going into that hole in the ground. Really . . . a completely voluntary choice?

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But my drawing on Massey, on Don Blankenship, or the dead and probables was not about Massey, Blankenship or the probables. They were the follow-up I promised above. The core question "What role has government to play in the regulation of a society's otherwise private affairs?" yet begs an answer.

All of us are familiar with some version of the conservative refrain, "Whenever you ask the government to regulate something, you surrender some freedom."

That's one hundred percent nonsense. It is for a couple reasons. First, the premise presumes an absolute, that any regulation whatsoever is equal both an egregious and a total regulation of my behaviors. As if regulating my ability to scream "Fire" in a packed theater also restricts absolutely my freedom to verbalize other expressions.

Rather, the underpinning purpose of governmental regulations is to bestow freedom, not deny it to me, or anyone else. Not having to be anxious that a fellow theater patron will scream "Fire" provides me the sense of freedom to more easily enjoy what I purchased a ticket to enjoy. If I have to personally take every food item I purchase -- every salad green, every chicken, every pork chop, every canned and boxed -- to a lab, then stand over the tec's shoulders while he or she tests my purchases for e-coli or salmonella or other pathogens . . . I'll starve. If I have to get out of my car, to personally inspect every inch of every overpass I pass over . . . I'll never get much farther than out of my driveway. I'll have no freedom of any kind or measure. I'll be a trapped prisoner of fear, as well as a slave to demands on my time I cannot possibly meet.

Midway into this decade, KBR, a wholly-owned subsidiary at the time of Halliburton, had a government contract to construct housing units for our soldiers and marines in Iraq. Several of the showers they constructed electrocuted our military personnel when they used them. Any reasonable person want to really put the likes of KBR in charge of warranting the structural safety of our bridges and overpasses? Or, would you prefer someone like Don "run the coal" Blankenship be in charge? Or someone else with a financial interest in the issue? Really?

No. No. Hell no! Completely contrary to what Republicans/conservatives (No difference between the two today) want folks to believe, those in private enterprise are not always pure in heart, always endowed with nothing but the public's best interests in mind. Granted that nothing done by humans will ever be completely free of error or nefarious temptation, there is nonetheless a place in government for government regulation. And the task of those regulators is to facilitate greater freedom, not less. Or . . . you want to drive over to that lab, to have your food tested, stopping every few portions of a mile to personally inspect every bridge and overpass along the way?
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An "Old Army Vet" and liberal, qua liberal, with a passion for open inquiry in a neverending quest for truth unpoisoned by religious superstitions. Per Voltaire: "He who can lead you to believe an absurdity can lead you to commit an atrocity."
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