Tuesday, April 6, 2010

So when is it murder?

Although corruption isn't pervasive at middle and lower levels of the US's social order, at the top corruption is so rampant and tolerated that the average citizen constantly finds herself wondering when deaths resulting from corruption and contempt for human life are, in fact, murder. Reading about the deaths of 25 miners in a mine explosion in West Virginia yesterday and the thousands of fine-incurring violations-- some of them for not properly ventilating methane gas-- that Don Blankenship, the CEO running the mine, had been racking up, I have to wonder, if this isn't mass murder, what is? When is treating human beings as if they were nothing more than disposable machinery a crime? And shouldn't treating human beings as if their lives are of no intrinsic value be morally indefensible?

Without doubt, this guy Blankenship is in every sense a bully. Last November, he threatened to shoot an ABC reporter he then assaulted. (Video of the event can be seen .) Reading about an address he made before the Tug Valley Mining Institute in Williamson, WV I couldn't help but think of Roddey Reid's article, The American Culture of Public Bullying (link via The Pinocchio Theory), which illuminates the public behavior of this man. The bullies that have made the US public sphere what it is today are the direct descendants off the CEO bullies of the 1980s, celebrated by the April issue of Fortune Magazine in this little slogan: "Leadership is demonstrated when the ability to inflict pain is confirmed."

Blankenship seems to have a history of "inflicting pain" (and thus of the "leadership" Fortune exalted). He bullies through abuses in speech, assault, and threats. He costs people their jobs. He likens his critics to Osama bin Laden. Why? Brad Johnson, asking the question "What have the 'atheists' at the Charleston Gazette done that merits Blankenship comparing them to Osama bin Laden?" answers it thus--
They’ve reported on:

The Fatal Aracoma Mine Fire. In the months before the fatal 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, which had 25 violations of health and safety laws, Blankenship personally waived company policy and told mine managers to ignore rules and “run coal.”

Political Corruption. Blankenship has spent millions of dollars to influence West Virginia judgeships and state legislative races, and palled around in Monte Carlo with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard and their “female friends” in July 2006. The state court reversed a $77 million verdict against Massey in 2008.

Mountaintop Removal. Massey Energy is the king of the incredibly destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. The Bush Administration (which includes former Massey officials) overturned Clinton-era rules limiting the practice. Massey now plans to destroy Coal River Mountain despite lacking necessary permits.

Blankenship sits on the boards of the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, who are running multimillion-dollar campaigns to block global warming regulations and fight the Employee Free Choice Act. Blankenship claimed that global warming deniers like himself are being silenced by “greeniacs,” and called Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, and Harry Reid “totally wrong” and “absolutely crazy."
He certainly fits Reid's profile of public (and workplace) bullying to a tee. But should he face criminal charges in yesterday's deaths in his mine?

This is from an April 6 AP story in the Houston Chronicle by Tim Huber:
At least 50 citations charge the company with "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials or designating escape routes.

"I've never seen that many for one mine in a year," said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News. "If you look at other mines that are the same size or bigger, they do not have the sheer number of `unwarrantable' citations that this mine has."

Massey has had problems elsewhere, too. In 2006, two miners were killed in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. Massey settled a wrongful death lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, and its subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. paid $3.7 million in civil and criminal penalties.

Testimony showed Massey CEO Don Blankenship suggested firing two supervisors for raising concerns about conveyer belt problems just before the belt caught fire.

"Massey has a history of emphasizing production," said Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley, who represented the miners' widows. "I'm concerned that they may not have learned the lessons of Aracoma."
And also:
Operating nonunion mines across southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, Massey more than doubled its profit to $104.4 million in 2009 from the year before, despite slumping demand for coal amid the recession. The company expects to be shipping 2 million tons of coal a year to India by next year.

Massey has managed to push the United Mine Workers union out of all of its operations except for a single processing plant.

Blankenship's hard-driving approach was illustrated in a 2005 memo in which he told mine workers that if their bosses ask them to build roof supports or perform similar tasks, "ignore them and run coal."
You tell me.

ETA 4/7/2010 I've just seen zunguzungu's Accidents seem to happen to Massey Energy a lot-- it's definitely worth checking out.


Kristin said...

Yes, I would call it murder. Not that you can measure human lives in money, but the money saved by fighting a union - about $50 million, is it? - might be just about enough to compensate the widows and orphans of miners who die in accidents like these. In a just world, it simply wouldn't be cost-effective to pull this kind of crap.

Kristin said...

Forgot to mention where my "widows and orphans" thought came from - a kids' book I was reading to my kindergartner. I usually censor better than this, but I accidentally read him:

"Earl Robert dragged [my son] off to war, with my husband," Meg Turner said. "They were both killed, but the earl returned with gold and spices and rich cloth he'd captured. He never helped the widows and orphans his war made."

From Witch's Cat by Ruth Chew.

It led to some incredibly difficult questions.