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The Upper Big Branch Murders

May 19, 2011

The independent inquiry of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion has finally concluded and released their report.  In short, it is a damning indictment of Massy Energy.

 But it was more pointed in naming Massey as the culprit, using blunt language to describe what it said was a pattern of negligence that ultimately led to the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in what was the worst American mining disaster in 40 years.

“The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” the report concluded. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.”

The report itself is very large, but well worth the read.  You can view it on the web or download the PDF.  It’s a remarkable report, and I highly recommend reading it.

From Chapter 12, “The normalization of deviance”

Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. In such a culture it was acceptable to mine coal with insufficient air; with buildups of coal dust; with inadequate rock dust. The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image to mislead the public, community leaders and investors – the perception that the company exceeded industry safety standards. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety. It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense.

Failure to address the effect of normalization of deviance in any examination of the Upper Big Branch disaster would not only be a disservice to the families, friends and loved ones of the men who died on April 5, 2010. It also would be a disservice to current and future coal miners whose lives depend on this nation’s willingness to ensure safe mining practices.

I wrote on this very topic over a year ago, shortly after the catastrophe.  What I said then is just as true today.

(Not all links may work)

Dead Peasants

29 lives.

That was the cost for Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, to keep running coal. Coal pays the bills at Massey, not coal miners. They’re just cogs in the machine. When the machine blows the cogs out, you replace them and turn the machine back on. It really is that simple. When Don Blankenship looks at his workers, he does not see human beings, he sees peasants that are only there to run coal and are nothing more than a cost to be cut.

29 lives at Upper Big Branch.

12 lives at Sago.

2 lives at Aracoma.

“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,” said the memo, a copy of which was obtained from Bruce E. Stanley, a lawyer who represented the widows of the victims of the Aracoma mine fire. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills“.

Actual memo (PDF)

Coal miners cost money, coal pays the bills. Bills for the $2.2 million in fines for over 3000 safety violations at Upper Big Branch since 1995. Bills for the legal costs of contesting $1,128,833.00 of safety violation fines. Bills for the $3 million spent to buy Don’s own personal Judge on the West Virginia Supreme Court. Bills for a trip to the Monte Carlo with the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard while a $77 million lawsuit was pending before the court. Bills for over $6 million trying to buy the West Virgina state government for the Republican party. I guess you must have priorities when you’re running a business.

Non-union miners are playing russian roulette with their own lives, and any miner who votes for a conservative is cutting his own throat. Union mines are safer mines, period. The anti-union actions taken by conservative politicians and big business have directly contributed to hundreds, if not thousands of deaths over the last three decades. Without strong labor organizations and regulation enforcement conducted on-site by union officials, these mines are death traps. How many will die in the next catastrophe, or the next? How many will it take before action is taken. Organize and Unionize, that’s the only way to push back, or just wait in line to die for company profits.

Don Blankenship has run his coal empire like a feudal lord, and in that spirit he has treated those brave men in his employ like serfs working for his own enrichment and power. The Blankenships of the world see our laws and regulations as quaint at best, and as a threat to their power and profit if they require even the barest of expenditures on safety and environmental protection. Men like Don Blankenship will spend millions to fight against safety and environmental regulations, millions paid for in blood by his workers and the surrounding communities, without even a second thought. Until we hold these criminals accountable for their crimes they will continue, and lives will be lost.

But hey, what’s a few hundred more dead peasants?

The deaths of the 29 miners at Upper Big Branch was negligent homicide, and those at the very top who perpetrated that crime should be held accountable for it.  Until they are, these tragedies will continue to happen, and more miners will die.

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