Thursday, April 15, 2010
AMERICAN LABOUR - WEST VIRGINIA:
MINE COMPANIES AND OTHER CORPORATE CRIMINALS:
Back on the 9th Molly presented several articles about the recent West Virginia coal mine disaster. Here are a couple more commentaries, these more radical than the first. leading off is an item from the Trial by Fire blog. This came Molly's way via the Anarkismo website.
25 Dead in West Virginia Mining Disaster
by John E Jacobsen
For the original article, and for further coverage, please visit: http://www.thetbf.wordpress.com/
This week, 25 miners lost their lives in a mine explosion at the Performance Coal Co. in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The explosion was the worst mining disaster in over two decades, if you don’t count the 10,000 who have died from black lung in the past decade.
Rescue workers are still working around the clock to find an additional 4 miners who are still missing.
The news comes only days after five workers died at an oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington.
Massey Energy Co., the company which owns the mine, is no stranger to mining disasters. The company has been cited for hundreds of mine safety violations in recent years, and last month, they were fined three times for ventilation problems which may have led to this disaster.
In March alone, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the company’s Upper Big Branch mine, where the disaster took place, for 53 safety violations.
These violations have come at a high price for the workers. In 2008, one of Massey’s subsidiary companies paid the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry. They plead guilty to safety violations that killed two miners in a fire, who suffocated and died partly as a result of the company removing needed ventilation controls.
At the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, conditions were far worse. In an interview with the New York Times, miners told reporters that in the two months preceding the disaster, workers had been evacuated three times because of dangerously high methane levels.
Andrew Tyler, an electrician who worked at the Upper Big Branch said “no one will say this who works at that mine, but everyone knows that it has been dangerous for years.”
Although it is still unclear what exactly led to the explosion, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said of the disaster: “something went very wrong here. All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”
Regulation of the Mines:
It was long known by regulators and workers alike that the conditions of the UBB mine were hazardous. Hundreds upon hundreds of violations had been found by inspectors, and workers were being evacuated monthly because of dangerously high methane levels.
As it turned out, the company’s chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, was writing memo’s to his staff to ignore the warnings. A 2005 memo which has resurfaced as a result of the disaster appears to encourage his deep mine superintendents to “run coal” at any cost:
“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal.”
Indeed, the Mining Industry, in particular Massey Energy Co., has done everything in its power to flaunt safety, environmental and health regulations.
To do so, mining companies have joined together in an effort to appeal as many violations as they can,as fast as they can. In so doing, they are, as Representative George Miller of California said, “[rendering] the federal efforts to hold mine operators accountable meaningless.”
Their strategy is simply to overwhelm regulators with appeals.
The strategy is working. One in four citations issued against coal mines are now appealed. The result is an overflow of 18,000 appeals waiting to be reviewed and $210 million in contested penalties.
But simply overwhelming regulators isn’t their only tactic. Mr. Blankenship also spent millions of dollars in a campaign to elect Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court. In return, the Chief Justice twice helped throw out $50 million cases against Massey Co., leading the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that from now on, judges must dismiss themselves from cases involving people who have spent large amounts of cash in their elections.
Further inquiries have been launched into a series of photographs released in 2008 showing Mr. Blankenship dining on the French Riviera with another court justice. The photographs were taken while several other cases were being heard by the judge, all involving Massey Co.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Mr. Blankenship has also contributed more than $100,000 to political campaigns in West Virginia. Associates of the company, as well as its political action committee, have spent an additional $307,000 on federal candidates.
It’s a simple fact of life in our economy that to own and run a successful business, you have to prioritize profit. That priority, however, is going to have different effects on different industries.
To the Barista in the downtown coffee shop, it’s going to mean precarious scheduling.
To the farm laborer, it’s going to mean more ICE raids.
And to the coal miner, it’s going to mean increased safety risks.
Business owners must prioritize profit. Mr. Blankenship, the owner of Massey Co., demonstrates for us with great clarity the kind of sociopath that the business world sometimes creates – a man so consumed with the desire to “run more coal,” that he will sacrifice 25 lives.
Large business owners like Blankenship, moreover, are more than capable of taking on both the courts and the regulators. He quite literally owns the judges who oversee his cases, and his political contributions all but guarantee tolerable legislation.
Blankenship, far from being an exception in the business world, is one of many business owners with a callous disregard for the lives of their workers.
So long as we operate in an economy based on profit instead of on human needs, we will continue to suffer these disasters, like the miners, from one generation to the next.
Hazel Dickens put it better than I could when she sang:
“How can God forgive you, you do know what you’ve done?
You’ve killed my husband now you want my son.”
Related Link: http://thetbf.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/safety-at-work/
Here's another point of view from Kevin Carson at the Center for a Stateless Society. Carson makes an excellent point from the anarchist perspective that such tragedies cannot be avoided by more and more government regulation, a point of view all too common on the "left".
Corporate Welfare Queen Kills 25
By Kevin Carson
Watching recent news on CEO Don Blankenship of Massey Energy — renowned for falling spectacularly short of industry safety standards which are themselves almost nonexistent, and most lately for hosting the site of the worst mining disaster in decades — I got the feeling I’d heard of this guy before.
Sure enough, several months ago Alternet listed Blankenship and Massey in a rogue’s gallery of corporate malefactors. Massey’s mountaintop removal operation was fined $50 million by West Virginia courts for polluting its neighbors. But hey, if you can afford to spend $3 million replacing an unfriendly justice with your own stooge, running attack ads (he “released sexual deviants”) that would make Lee Atwater or Karl Rove proud, those pesky fines are easy enough to deal with. (Blankenship was spotted in Monte Carlo a few months later partying with yet another buddy on the Supreme Court.) $3 million to buy a Supreme Court justice, to overturn a $50 million fine from a lower court — that’s what I call a pretty good return on your money. It reminds me of all those colorful stories about railroads buying legislators and Congressmen wholesale back in the Gilded Age.
Blankenship also opined, by the way, that it’s perfectly OK for elementary school kids to inhale coal dust from his operations while playing on school grounds. You see, Massey “already pays millions of dollars in taxes each year.” Ever see that episode of The Simpsons where a young Monty Burns ran down workers in the street for the sheer joy of crippling them, and then tossed money out the window?
Blankenship, it seems, is also a major corporate Tea Party sponsor, appearing at last year’s Labor Day Tea Party with the charming duo of Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent.
Blankenship also seems to collect unpaid fines for unsafe working conditions the way some people collect parking tickets in their glove box.
Interestingly, an Alternet commentator on the Tea Party story wrote: “I’m sure those people cheering every insane thing he said at that rally will blame the government for failing to stop him, thus proving once again that it can’t do anything right.”
Well, yeah. The mine safety and anti-pollution regulations, in this case, are a good illustration of why the corporate state replaced traditional tort liability standards under the common law with a regulatory state in the first place.
Mountaintop removal is just what the name implies. It involves clearing areas of thousands of acres, in the process filling nearby valleys and stream beds with debris and destroying entire watersheds. It also involves showering surrounding areas with coal dust from silos — you know, the dust Blankenship’s taxes pay the schoolkids to breathe. And then there’s the multi-billion gallon sludge ponds full of coal mine waste. The dam enclosing one such Massey pond gave way several years ago, with its contents wound up in the Big Sandy River. A number of towns lie in the flood path of other such ponds, should they give way.
Now, you’d think tort liability for the full damages of wholesale devastation of the entire countryside, the poisoned water and coal dust, the deaths from gross negligence, and all the rest of it, would seriously undermine the profitability of mountaintop removal. And you’d be right.
That’s exactly what the regulatory state was created to avoid. Let’s look at a little history. I can’t recommend strongly enough “The Transformation of American Law,” by Morton Horwitz. According to Horwitz, the common law of tort liability was radically altered by state courts in the early to mid-19th century to make it more business-friendly. Under the traditional standard of liability, an actor was responsible for harm that resulted from his actions — period. Negligence was beside the point. Courts added stricter standards of negligence and intent, in order to protect business from costly lawsuits for externalities they might impose on their neighbors. The regulatory state subsequently imposed far weaker standards than the traditional common law; the main practical effect was to preempt what remained of tort liability. A regulatory standard amounts to a license to commit torts below the threshold of that standard, and lawsuits against polluters and other malfeasors can be met with the defense that “we are fully in compliance with regulatory standards.” In some cases, as with food libel laws or product disparagement laws, even voluntarily meeting a more stringent standard may be construed as disparagement of products that merely meet the regulatory standard. For example, Monsanto has had mixed success in some jurisdictions suppressing the commercial free speech of those who advertise their milk as free from rBGH; and conventional beef producers have similarly managed in some cases to prevent competitors from testing for mad cow disease more frequently than the law mandates.
So a class action suit against a coal mining company for the public nuisance created by mountaintop removal could be thwarted by simply demonstrating that the operation met EPA regulatory standards, even if such operations caused serious harm to the property rights and quality of life of the surrounding community.
I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Blankenship is one of the most loathsome pigs ever to contaminate the Earth with his presence. And the dumbed-down regulatory state — by offering wrist-slap fines worth a tiny fraction of the harm caused by his terrorism, as a substitute for free juries of his neighbors nailing his scrotum to the wall for his crimes — has played a key role in enabling him.
C4SS Research Associate Kevin Carson is a contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, both of which are freely available online. Carson has also written for a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.