Coal Tattoo

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. and ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, just delivered this speech on the floor of the House of Representatives:

Mr. Speaker, last week, the United Mine Workers of America released the results of their investigation into the deadliest coal mine tragedy in four decades. The report describes the conditions on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine that led to a colossal explosion killing 29 miners.

It confirms the findings of two other independent investigations. In short, Massey’s failure to eliminate explosive coal dust throughout the mine converted an otherwise manageable methane fire into a catastrophic explosion.

The force of this explosion traveled more than seven miles underground, destroying everything in its path. Miles of coal belts were decimated. Rail road tracks were twisted like pretzels. And massive mining equipment was tossed underground like lawn furniture during a hurricane.

The report noted that in the 15 months before the explosion, the mine was cited 645 times for violations of mine safety laws. They faced $1.2 million in potential fines. However, rather than improving safety, Massey challenged three-quarters of the fines.

And in the month before the explosion, miners had asked that the accumulation of explosive coal dust be addressed 560 times. However, management only responded 65 times.

The Upper Big Branch Mine was literally a powder keg.

The mine workers’ investigation concluded that 29 miners died because of a corrupt corporate culture that put production ahead of human life.

Massey Energy’s top management was well aware of the conditions at the Upper Big Branch Mine. They knew of the mountain of citations for dangerous conditions. But all they had to do was to file an appeal to get federal safety officials to back off.

Massey also obstructed mine safety inspections by alerting operations of an inspector on the property so they can cover up any noticeable problem

And, management knew workers were complaining about conditions below ground. But all Massey had to do was remind these miners that they were free to find other employment if they continued to speak up.

Corporate officers didn’t mince words when it came to production over safety. In a “RUN COAL” memo from CEO Don Blankenship in 2005, he told workers that their only concern was to produce coal.

The message was clear from the very top: Produce coal, disregard safety problems or find another job. Miners of Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines have told Congress and investigators similar stories.

To enforce their perverse philosophy, the top management demanded reports every 30 minutes on how much their mines were producing.

It is clear that Massey Energy management actively disregarded their workers’ health and safety. Unfortunately, the knowing violation of a mandatory health and safety standard is only a misdemeanor, no matter how many miners are killed.

This kind of conduct needs to be made a felony, but efforts to increase sanctions have been stifled by the mining industry’s lobby.

Instead of being held accountable for decisions that caused 29 deaths, Massey Energy executives got a massive $195 million payout when they sold off their company, according to the United Mine Workers report.

Even though Don Blankenship was forced to resign following the Upper Big Branch tragedy, he pocketed $86 million in a golden parachute when 29 of the miners under his jurisdiction and responsibility were killed.

If you wonder why people are talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the 99 percent in the mine had their lives put in danger every day.

They went to work for Massey. And every day they questioned it, they were threatened with their job loss.

But the 1 percent, the 1 percent walked away with $195 million for overseeing one of the most dangerous mining operations in the history of this country.

What about the families of the breadwinners of the 99 percent? They lost their husband, they lost their father, and they lost their brother.

Now we understand the disparity, why people are occupying Wall Street, while people are occupying home towns all over the country. We understand this.

But we also know these miners had to simply go to work. This was a job that was available to them, but they were rode rough shot over by Massey.

These families are simply left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives may receive scraps later on in some final determination.

It’s a familiar story in an era where Wall Street executives have big payout after wrecking the economy. But Massey energy executives resulted in the destruction of 29 lives, 29 families. This makes Massey’s payout even more disgusting.

Massey Energy was recently sold to Alpha Natural Resources. I have been personally assured that these corrupt practices won’t reappear with the new owners.

However, there are some troubling contradictions that merit a careful watch.

Despite stating their intentions to fully cooperate with the government investigations, Alpha has been keeping some senior Massey managers who have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights. And Alpha’s recent actions to fight potential pattern of violation sanctions at former Massey mines don’t sit well either.

Yes, mining is a dangerous job, but not every mining company operates like Massey, nor should they and nor should we tolerate the Massey’s of the coal industry.