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Thursday, April 22, 2010 07:40 pm

King Coal says, ‘Live free or die!’

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By gollies, one group in our country has what it takes! One group has done more than just strut around at teabag rallies, barking loudly about nullification, secession, militias and other big-talk threats to stop federal intrusion into our lives and businesses.

This group has put the walk to the talk, acting again and again in recent years to restrain the reach of government so people can prosper. And last week, the fates delivered a fresh and forceful example of the benefits that our society receives from this group’s all-out devotion to its “live free or die” ethic.

Of course, 29 West Virginia coal miners did actually have to die because of the group’s success at hogtying the feds — but hey, the freedom to prosper comes at a price.

Those 29 miners suffered a terrible and unnecessary death when methane gas was illegally allowed to accumulate in the Upper Big Branch mine ... and then exploded. “A tragedy,” wrote the media. “A horrible accident,” decried politicians.

B.S. The fates did not blow up these 29 people. They are dead because self-serving profiteers in the coal industry have routinely used their enormous political clout to fend off commonsense safety regulations by the big, bad government, thus making these “accidents” inevitable. In the case of Upper Big Branch, the profiteer is one of America’s biggest coal corporations, Massey Energy Co., along with its right-wing, multimillionaire CEO, Don Blankenship.

King Coal, as the industry is known both in Appalachia and on Capitol Hill, deploys more than 100 Washington lobbyists and doles out millions of dollars in campaign donations. All of this political firepower is used to sidetrack the simplest safety measures and muzzle the federal mine safety watchdog. How tight is the muzzle? Deliberate violations of safety rules that lead to deaths are treated as misdemeanors!

Upper Big Branch has been cited by the feds for more than 3,000 worker safety violations since 1995, and its record of dangerous disregard has gotten worse in recent years.  Last year it had nearly 500 violations, roughly double the number in 2008, including ones that create life-threatening conditions for miners. Yet its “punishment” was $168,393 in fines, with no effective requirement to improve conditions. This is chump change to Massey, which had $56 million in profits last year.

In 2003, CEO Blankenship blithely declared, “We don’t pay much attention to the violation count.” Indeed, Upper Big Branch received 53 fresh citations last month alone, including problems with its mine ventilation system, which is supposed to prevent methane explosions. On Monday morning, April 5, federal inspectors issued two more citations at Upper Big Branch, then left. That afternoon, the mine exploded.

In a radio interview, Blankenship expressed his bottom-line compassion for the dead in these words: “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

Such callousness is King Coal’s calling card. After a series of mine fatalities in 2006, for example, federal regulators considered requiring better seals to keep methane from seeping from one mining area to another. The New York Times reports that, at a 2007 hearing on the proposal, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association demanded that officials ignore the pleas by victims’ widows for new safety seals. He accused the government of reacting hysterically to the deaths: “Did you know that 750 people die each year in the U.S. from eating bad or ruined potato salad?” he asked.

Astonishingly, federal regulators under the George W. Bush regime swallowed the “bad potato salad” defense, sparing this multibillion-dollar-a-year industry the minor expense of installing better safety seals.

Less than a week after such lax safety enforcement killed the 29 West Virginia miners, coal company lobbyists were again swarming Washington. They expressed the industry’s usual “deep concern” for workers, but warned against rushing to impose any new safety regulations. After all, the government has no business intruding into people’s lives, right?

As Blankenship put it in 2009, “Politicians get emotional” about disasters, then try to enact rules that are “as silly as global warming.” Live free or die.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.
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