With Don Blankenship, the notorious former Massey Energy CEO, about to go on trial for multiple charges stemming from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010,
' Tim Murphy takes an in-depth look at Blankenship's brutal business practices
and consolidation of political power in West Virginia. The whole thing is worth a read, but a couple points stand out for what they say about the state of workplace safety protections in this country:
All but one of the charges he faces, a pattern of violation that the UMWA dubbed "industrial homicide," carry light sentences, adding up to a maximum of six years in prison. What threatens to put the 65-year-old away for decades are two allegedly false statements Massey submitted in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission: "We do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations," and "we strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times," Blankenship informed investors, even as his company was allegedly outflanking the regulatory system. It's the mining equivalent of busting Al Capone for tax evasion.
"I have all the respect in hell that at least somebody was able to say, 'Wait a minute, that isn't right,'" says Bruce Stanley, who represented Caperton in his suit against Massey. "But he's up for what, a possible 30-year sentence? Well, there's only one count that puts that kind of mileage on it. That's the one that says he lied to Wall Street. When it comes to human lives, he gets maybe a year."
Time and time again, we see how little the law values workers' lives. It's startlingly rare for an executive to face charges for worker deaths, no matter how gross the negligence and contempt for human life. And the laws aren't getting stronger any time soon:
The state's signature mine safety accomplishment following Upper Big Branch was a new regulation mandating drug tests for miners, a reform favored by companies and opposed by unions. (Drug use has never been associated with the disaster.) Other reforms have since been rolled back. Federal legislation that would have made it a felony to conspire to commit mine safety violations—what Blankenship is charged with—stalled in Congress thanks to heavy lobbying from the energy industry. Even the chemical safety measure passed by the state Legislature after the Freedom Industries spill was almost immediately gutted by West Virginia lawmakers.
Our lawmakers are not seriously trying to prevent another Upper Big Branch. To do that, they'd have to take on big business and its lobbyists and campaign donors, and that's not happening. It's not just Don Blankenship, it's not just mining, it's not just West Virginia. And it's disgusting.