There’s still no such thing as a natural disaster

Posted in anthropology, law, mine safety, politics, union on April 5th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Not in the mines, anyway.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, WV, in which 29 miners died. As I wrote then, the investigation is ongoing – there is no consensus on what caused the explosion, nor on what should be done to prevent another. The chairman of Massey Energy, the company responsible for the Upper Big Branch facility, called the explosion a “natural disaster”.

Whether such a thing exists at all is up for debate (on this, I highly recommend Neil Smith’s article pertaining to the “naturalness” of the effects of Hurricane Katrina). But in the coal mines of West Virginia, where production is still valued over miners’ lives, this disaster is the furthest thing from natural. Describing it as such is just Massey’s most recent attempt to absolve itself of accountability for miners’ deaths.

Exactly a year after the explosion, my article critiquing mining disasters, safety laws, and corporate responsibility has been published in the April 2011 issue of North American Dialogue, the journal of the Society for the Anthropology of North America. For those who wish to read a condensed version, here is the short article I attempted to publish in online news journals (you may recall my failure on this account) which comes from the same research.

I won’t invoke the “never again” that has become a clich√© in times like these, because, unfortunately, this will happen again. It will happen as long as we consume coal. More important, I think, is that these men never be forgotten and their deaths never, ever be erased by being called “natural.”

 

Martinsburg, WV (my hometown), photo by author

Mine! mine! mine!  How corporate self-interest trumped civic responsibility in Montcoal

by Emily S. Channell

Millions of gallons of oil streaming into the Gulf of Mexico since April 22 quickly swept aside news of the deaths of 29 miners in the April 5 mine explosion at Montcoal, West Virginia. Outside of the state, reporting on the details of the explosion and its causes has been minimal. A May 17 Newsweek article on the Deepwater Horizon spill even misreported the number of dead miners at Upper Big Branch to have been 25. The bad behavior of BP executives has trumped that of the top dogs at Massey Energy, the company that owns Upper Big Branch, even as a criminal inquiry into the explosion unfolds.

Industry executives present coal to energy consumers as a cheap, clean, domestic power source. This ignores the danger coal mining creates for miners and the destruction it causes to the natural environment. The demand for coal in the United States is enormous. According to the National Mining Association, half of U.S. electricity is coal-generated, and 90 percent of coal mined in the U.S. is used domestically. Mine owners stand to benefit from increasing production as the U.S. becomes more dependent on coal, and safety laws remain a barrier to their operations.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years. How can a coal mine, particularly one owned by the largest, richest coal mining company in West Virginia, allow such a disaster to happen? Both corporate leaders and government agencies benefit from a culture of impunity in mining regulations. The people who control the coal industry, like Massey CEO Don Blankenship, are above the law and are not held accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the law itself is not working. Miners have little power against such huge corporations, and the miners’ union is largely absent from underground mines in West Virginia because of company-led anti-union practices. Neither the government agency responsible for the laws (Mine Safety and Health Administration) nor the miners themselves can hold owners and operators accountable for their practices. This impunity is directly responsible for mining disasters and disregard for miners’ lives throughout Appalachia.

The Legacy of Archaic Regulations

The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1969 and its 1977 amendments remain the standard for safety regulations in coal mines today. These laws require annual inspections for both underground and surface mines to monitor ventilation, methane levels, and coal dust prevalence, three factors that likely contributed to the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Coal production has tripled since 1970, but these standards have not been revised to reflect increased coal production. Additional laws created in 2006 in response to the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia institute emergency planning and preparation standards in underground mines but do not change any regulations for coal mines. As coal corporations have consolidated into near-monopolies in Appalachia, owners and operators find numerous ways to get around safety laws both old and new.

Mine disasters still happen largely because federal mine safety regulations are insufficient and unenforced. The Upper Big Branch mine has received 124 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for safety violations so far in 2010, on top of 515 citations in 2009. Most of these citations remain unresolved. Massey Energy contests 74 percent of the violations its mines receive from MSHA. The appeal process takes around 500 days to settle. During this process, the owners pay no fines and are not required to deal with the problem the citation targeted. Massey Energy amassed almost $1.2 billion by March 31 of this year, and the company was only charged $1.1 million in fines since January 2009. Because Massey can easily afford to pay the fines, its owners are not pressured to make their mines safer for workers.

The State of the Union

In West Virginia, where most people’s income is 24 percent below the national average, coal mining is still the most lucrative industry. Even for people with college degrees, coal mining offers the greatest income and benefits among available jobs in the southern part of the state, while most service-sector jobs are concentrated in urban hubs or in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles. Corporations such as Massey take advantage of this situation to keep their mines anti-union because they know people need the work and the money mining jobs provide. Miners who show interest in unionizing are frequently threatened or lose their jobs, as several miners testified at Congressional hearings in May of this year. Miners fear reporting obvious safety violations and taking measures to fix them for the same reasons.

Upper Big Branch was a union mine until 1993, when Don Blankenship bought it for Massey Energy. Blankenship disbanded the union until 1997, when the option to unionize was put to a vote. Massey ran a successful anti-union campaign, wherein the company threatened to fire miners who supported the union. The miners voted against union affiliation. In this climate, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) faces dwindling numbers of underground miners in West Virginia and across the country. In most of Massey’s 23 coal mining operations, where only four percent of miners are unionized, the UMWA has lost much of its power to protect laborers and to demand better practices from mining companies.

Will Further Inquiry Yield Change?

It would be far too hopeful to suggest that Massey risks going out of business based on a few criminal trials, but the company’s safety record is currently under serious scrutiny by West Virginia lawmakers as well as the federal government. The FBI has demanded a criminal inquiry into the explosion at Upper Big Branch. This investigation will examine the existence of negligence or reckless disregard on the part of Massey, potentially targeting the corporation and Don Blankenship directly.

As the inquiry plays out, the potential for new mine safety legislation and a real questioning of corporate impunity in West Virginia presents itself. The current administration should consider rewriting the 1977 mine safety laws to target insufficient legislation and loopholes that make enforcement nearly impossible. The laws should not let corporations and their leaders get away with unsafe practices that put miners’ lives in danger daily.

Lest We Forget

How quickly we forget, however, the relevance of the coal mining disaster to our daily lives. It is easy to rely on coal. It is easy to demand that West Virginia continue to produce coal because Appalachian coal is understood to be domestic, cheaply mined, and an efficient energy source. It is easy to forget that many in West Virginia may have no other option than to work in the mines and to encourage their family members to work in the mines.

It is easy to forget that miners in the 1920s gave their lives to win their right to form a union and that miners today give their lives because they do not have the right to challenge the safety practices of a gigantic corporation that is their best source of livelihood.

It is easy to ignore the structures of corporate power that make men such as Don Blankenship immune to justice. It is easy to see the human and environmental destruction done by Massey and BP alike as accidents rather than predictable results of the power of corporate capitalists to neglect people’s interests and escape governmental oversight. When we fail to challenge the structures that lead to these disasters, when we erase these memories, we contribute to the culture of impunity that caused 29 men to die at Montcoal in an entirely preventable disaster.

 


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