Monday, November 17, 2014

Coal Miner's Slaughter?

Listening to the chorus of Republican Congressional leaders outlining their legislative priorities for the new year last week was like witnessing the unrolling of the Koch brother's Christmas wish list.

If you read Tim Dickinson's exhaustive and scathing expose on Koch Industries and the alarming political agenda of Charles and David Koch in a recent issue of Rolling Stone, you know that list is long and scary.

Repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, curbing the enforcement authority of the Environmental Protection Agency and creating more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans rank pretty high on the to-do list of newly elected (or newly re-elected) members of the GOP - many of whom took campaign contributions from the afore-mentioned brothers Koch.

Some of them also ran on the Tea Party ticket; the infamous Koch-funded front which masquerades as a political party. 

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the post-election GOP rhetoric is genuine, and Republicans really do want to work with the President and other Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation that will benefit the American people; why not act on coal mine safety?

Republicans are all but salivating over an upcoming Congressional vote on the Keystone Pipeline and the opportunity to make the US even more energy independent by relying on natural resources found in the land and waters of North America.

Lord knows Republican candidates ran enough political TV ads this past election cycle financed by the coal industry from groups like the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

Many of us take it for granted that the lights come on when we walk in and flip the switch on.

But we also assume an industry that bill's itself as "America's Power" takes responsibility to both ensure the safety of it's workforce and comply with the federal regulations designed to protect those safety standards.    

According to an in-depth series of reports released last week that were jointly-produced by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News, that's not always the case.

The report details how some of the nation's largest coal producers routinely violate federal mine safety regulations, ignore recommendations to address flagrant violations that put workers at risk, then are allowed to simply keep on operating; even when they owe hefty fines and penalties.

Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship
The stunning report coincided with the news that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (pictured left) was indicted in federal court on four charges last week; including numerous and flagrant violations of US mine safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia where 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion back in 2010.

Blankenship resigned as CEO of Massey Energy in December of 2010 just three weeks after an article in Rolling Stone written by Jeff Goodell profiled the notorious coal executive. 

He was widely reviled as seen in this ABC News segment and interview that aired back in April, 2014, in which he tried to deflect blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion on the miners who died, rather than his own well-documented orders to his own mine managers to warn workers about upcoming inspections so that safety violations like the one that killed those 29 miners could be covered up.

But the Don Blankenships of this world can only operate when federal regulations are not enforced.

With control of both houses of Congress, Republican lawmakers could actually do something about the lax enforcement of coal mining regulations if they really wanted to.

They have the power to call hearings, subpoena witnesses and draft legislation that Democrats could support and the President could sign.

But it's not likely Charles and David Koch would like that very much.

Regulating the fossil fuel industry to keep workers safe is something they've spent millions lobbying against for years, because pesky regulations that might have kept the 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine safe get in the way of profit margins.

And as Tim Dickinson's recent article in Rolling Stone makes clear, the Kochs worship profit above human lives, the environment, the law and even the integrity Charles Koch is so fond of saying lies at the heart of the industrial behemoth he and his brother have created.

So even though House Speaker John Boehner is from Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky (both coal producing states) chances are slim that they will deviate from the agenda set by the Koch brothers and their privately-financed legislative factory the American Legislative Exchange Council.   

Republicans could do something about mine safety in the next two years, but they won't. Their policy wonks would find some reason to label such talk "pro-union" or "anti-business"; or "anti-freedom".

In the meantime people like Jack Blankenship (no relation to Don) will pay the price.

Injured miner Jack Blankenship [Photo courtesy -]
According to the NPR investigation, Jack (pictured left) was working a mile underground in the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia when a 300-pound slab of rock fell from the ceiling, struck him in the back and pinned him to the ground and left him permanently disabled and in constant pain.

The Aracoma Alma mine had been cited for 120 violations for falling rock over the previous two years before Jack's accident; Aracoma was owned by none other than Massey Energy.

According to the Rolling Stone expose on Koch Industries, Danielle Smalley was seventeen when she and her teenage friend Jason Stone smelled gas in her family's mobile home 50 miles from Dallas, Texas near a town called Lively.

Danielle Smalley, victim of Koch Industries
Danielle (pictured left) told her dad, then hopped into his 1964 Chevy pickup truck with Jason to go tell the authorities about the aroma of gas. 

When the truck stalled in the driveway near a creek bed that was filled with the vapor from liquid butane that had spilled from a ruptured, badly corroded pipeline owned by the Koch Pipeline Company, Danielle turned the key in the ignition and ignited a spark and the truck went up in a ball of flame killing her and her friend Jason.

That was August 24, 1996 - the day before she was supposed to go away to college.

She's not the only victim of Koch Industries relentless drive for profit either, there are many others.

She won't be the last either. Somewhere, in some small town or city there's a section of pipeline, or a valve, or damaged roof support in a mine somewhere - accidents waiting to kill innocent people.

Accidents that could have been prevented if companies like Massey Energy or Koch Industries simply complied with the law instead of pretending that they are somehow above it.

Sadly, their obsession with financial profit will blind them to the need to comply with the law.

If they don't agree with the law, they've pretty much already bought the Republican party; and with a GOP majority controlling both houses, they'll simply have ALEC draft up a new law to be presented on the floor of the House or Senate.

One that does away with pesky things like the sanctity of human life, respect for nature and the environment and a sense of moral responsibility.

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