Exploiting the deaths of innocent people for political gain needs to stop

By Brian S

r3701109545Yesterday, 25 workers died in a horrific mine accident in Montcoal, West Virginia.  Four of the workers remain missing and rescue efforts are underway as I write this.  Despite the many advances we have made over the last two hundred years, mining remains one of the most dangerous professions in the world. My grandfather, for a time, worked as a coal miner in the Virginia appalachian mines, as did his  father. My heart goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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And, in news that should shock no one, the Democrats in the Virginia blogosphere have not even waited 24 hours before turning this story about tragic deaths of miners in West Virginia into a tool to bash Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.  Over at Blue Virginia, Lowell Feld writes “The fact is, Ken Cuccinelli and others in Virginia government – overwhelmingly Republican – are deeply in the pocket of Massey Energy and Don Blankenship, far more concerned with doing their bidding than in protecting workers, the environment, etc.” Ben Tribbett at Not Larry Sabato argues that Cuccinelli should open an investigation on Massey Energy’s mine in Tazewell, Virginia, and basically daring him not to.

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This is pathetic. We have no idea what happened at this mine yet. Recovery operations are still underway. The bodies of the dead aren’t even cold yet, much less buried, and already the Democrats are out with their claws, trying to turn this against the Attorney General. Have they no shame? Have they no sense of what is right and appropriate? We have no idea what is going on here, yet they are quick to point the fingers at the Attorney General.

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Why? I have no idea. Regulation of mines – particularly the health and safety – is generally handled at the federal level, by the Mine Health and Safety Administration of the Department of Labor. They are primarily responsible for regulating health and safety in mines, and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. While states aren’t preempted from regulating mines, if the provisions of the state law contradicts federal law, federal law wins. Why aren’t Lowell and Ben attacking Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis? She’s in charge of mine safety at the federal level. Why focus on the Attorney General of a state where the accident didn’t even occur?

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I am sick and tired of Democrats using tragedies to advance their political agenda. They do this every time there is a mass shooting (gun control). They do this every time there is a natural disaster (global warming). As Rahm Emanuel says, “don’t waste a serious crisis.” So instead of being respectful, mourning the dead and letting the investigation determine what exactly happened, they rush out to condemn whichever Republican is at the top of their hit list. It’s wrong and it’s deplorable. Lowell even went so far as to ask “why, in the year 2010, we are still stuck in a 19th century energy economy (coal and other fossil fuels) instead of a 21st century one (energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, etc.)” It’s just ridiculous.

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Both Ben and Lowell should apologize to the families of the victims in West Virginia and to the Attorney General for not even waiting a day before trying to turn a tragedy into political fodder. And people wonder why so many are disgusted by politics?

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UPDATE: President Obama just spoke on the accident – he asked people to pray for the safe return of the missing workers and “sending the deepest condolences” to the families. He didn’t mention Ken Cuccinelli. Go figure.


Comments

  • Alton Foley says:

    And, since some here insist on bringing it up, could someone tell me if Cuccinelli advised all state agencies they must immediately fire all gay employees, or did he just advise them that they could not use their sexual orientation as a reason not to fire them?
    *
    That is two entirely different things, I don’t care who or what you poke at in your bedroom, you’ll have to agree.

  • Brian S says:

    This has nothing to do with labor. Although, as I said over on NLS, I’d feel more comfortable if the UMWA was on site there, following up behind MSHA and the state inspectors. Regardless of what you think about unions, the UMWA has a great safety program, and they are one of the best unions for workplace safety programs out there. They were very good folks to work with when I was at DOL, and I think they could have done some good in WV had Massey been union.

  • Brian S says:

    Alton, check out my post here on the sexual orientation business – https://tooconservativ.wpengine.com/?p=6601

  • Alton Foley says:

    Don’t fool yourself Brian. The UMWA is, and has been, a good friend of miners. However, today’s Massey non-union miner knows he can take complaints straight to MSHA, or even to Don Blankenship, and receive action on any safety issue. Sure, a non-union miner in a small contract-coal company may experience repercussions from a safety related complaint, but I’ve never heard of it happening at Massey, TECO, AEP, or any of the larger companies.

  • Alton, it wasn’t me who said Massey puts production ahead of safety. It was Massey CEO Don Blankenship:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/us/07westvirginia.html?hp=&pagewanted=all

    You’re welcome to call Don & tell him that’s hogwash & he probably knows it.

  • Alton Foley says:

    I read that when you posted it Brian, and I agree in principle. But somehow I think my phrasing of the question is more apt to eliminate the shrillness coming from all sides on this issue.

  • Alton Foley says:

    Actually Green, I was referring to Gretchen above, but I’ll bite at your bait. Your reference is to one line quoted in a news story. Show me the entire memo, and if it says that Massey is unconcerned about safety, I’ll retract my statement.

  • Gretchen Laskas says:

    Alton, my family has been in West Virginia for eight generations now. We have done everything possible in regards to working the coal fields. We’ve lost family members in mining disasters. Many in my family were beaten by guards for attempting to unionize. My family grew up in the abject poverty of the coal fields, and a few are there yet. I grew up in a world where people did not have limbs. I still get a sick feeling when the siren goes off, even when I know it is only a test. My grandfather died of black lung. My grandparents stripped their farm and I played on the shale face, hunting for fossils — the kinds that could be big enough to collapse a roof and break a man’s back. I’ve swum in rivers polluted by mine run-off. I’ve been in more than a few abandoned coal mines (not with my parents’ knowledge!) I wrote a novel about coal mining for young people, and have spent the past three years of my life travelling through West Virginia talking with coal miners, their children, and their wives (and occasionally a husband!) My husband interned with the United Mine Workers.

    So yeah, I know a coal mine from a hole in the ground!

  • John Millhiser says:

    It is obvious that Alton and Gretchen have walked the walk here and know of what they speak. I too have spent many a day underground in some very large mines operated by different companies]. I was involved with research for degasification and respirable dust control. All of my work was as a contractor to Bureau of Mines. However, I went through much of the same safety training and worked with MSHA on many occasions getting my development test equipment approved for permissibility. I have a good understanding of what causes fires and explosions underground and know enough that there are many many possibilities for what happened in WVa.I would have to say that we must wait until we know the probable cause before it is fair to blame anyone or anything. I know that the mining companies where I worked did respect there good employees and would not be flipent about their safety.

  • Wolverine says:

    Dan brought up an interesting point about the repeated fines, raising in my own mind the question of why that mine hadn’t been shut down temporarily to fix safety problems. Looks like Alton Foley answered that question right on the nose. Very valuable blog exchange, I would say. Thanks to both.

  • Cucumbria G. Keam says:

    When Ben was a young tyke, his “environmentalist” Daddy told him how coal mining wasn’t needed because you could just get energy from the plug! Fortunately for Ben, Daddy John’s lessons were reinforced by what he learned at Robinson High School. Besides, as Daddy said, when those miners come up from the ground, they look like those black beast people that they used to have to whip on the Tribbett plantation.
    .
    It is just as well that Ben and his gal-pal Joey stay away from coal mines. The farts generate enough methane to create a huge explosion hazard!

  • Union Guy says:

    Simple fact: Republicans want less regulation; Democrats want more. Would less regulation avert an incident like this – NO. Would more, most likely YES. What about food safety, pet food safety, toothpaste safety, drywall safety, or car safety?

    The republican model of free markets running crazy for big business profits may go for a while but will eventually break down. (crash and burn) As mine regulations decrease starting with Reagan and the Bushes the miner injuries increase.

    Right now the only real safety programs are with the UNWA. Look up mine
    safety union vs non union. This is from the Slate

    Perhaps more fundamentally, union mines instill—and can at times reward—a greater sense of collective responsibility than nonunion mines. In stark contrast to the Sago disaster, on Jan. 29, the lives of all 72 unionized miners trapped in a Saskatchewan potash mine were saved after a devastating, toxic machine fire trapped them underground. When the workers reached the surface more than 24 hours later, virtually all of them credited the emergency training they had received—including practices and rehearsals. Their union—Communications, Energy and Paperworkers—had pushed for this training, and the union had also agitated to allow miners to earn paid time to prepare for underground disasters.

    Hey once in a while unions and regulations save lives and better our country.

  • Brian S says:

    Union guy, there’s not much more regulation to do when it comes to mining. Almost everything is regulated – it’s one of the most heavily regulated industries. I don’t see anyone arguing for less, and, like I said, it’s hard to push for more.
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    I’ve made no bones about my support for the labor movement – in a good number of situations, far more than Republicans give them credit for, unions can provide services that are hard to beat. Mine safety is one of those areas and I can’t say enough good things about the UMWA’s efforts when it comes to mine safety.

  • David skiles says:

    As someone who has grown up in the Coal Community as my family was involved in mining for many generations I do understand how horrible this is on the families and the mining community in general. Through my family, I saw what Sago did to the coal community but I have also witnessed the joy at rescues such as Quecreek. Coal mining is a dangerous profession and one that is full of hard work. To exploit this as a political move is disrespectful and pathetic. This town will never be the same after a loss of so many miners and it certainly is not a political pawn.

    As for the Union Guy comment, yes, the UMW has done good things but I also have seen the damage they can do to the mining community and mining companies. I have seen far more useful regulations come out of career industry guys who know what they are doing as opposed to Union folks who push for useless regulation and burdens on coal companies. For example, the decision to pass Miner act I in 2006 regulated that coal mines had to have wireless two way radio communications inside and out. That’s a great idea but wireless signals cannot penetrate hundreds of feet of rock. Over the protests of industry folks, this law was passed and to date it has yet to be implemented because of its difficulty in design.
    More regulation would not have adverted this disaster. Sometimes these things just happen and it is horrible and scary to think but it’s a fact.

  • Loudoun Lady says:

    That’s right David, sometimes despite heavy regulation things just happen. Deeming them an “accident” brings all kinds of baggage – but it is what it is. I think Brian is spot on here as well and I am no fan of big labor unions. Regulation has a point of diminishing returns.

  • Union Guy says:

    For Immediate Release Contact Eddie Vale 202-637-5018

    STATEMENT BY AFL-CIO PRESIDENT RICHARD TRUMKA ON

    THE WEST VIRGINIA MINE ACCIDENT

    April 6, 2010

    The thoughts and prayers of America’s workers are with the families of those lost today at Performance Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch mine. We pray for the safe rescue of those still missing and for the safety of the courageous mine rescue team members.

    As a third-generation coal miner, I know too well the dangers these brave men and women face every day as they work to provide for their families. Forty years after the passage of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, mine safety has improved, but mining remains a dangerous occupation. Unfortunately, it has taken tragedies and miners’ deaths to get safety improvements.

    However, this incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct. Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line. Massey Mine, and its CEO, Don Blankenship, have been cited for over 450 safety violations in this mine. Massey paid over $1 million in fines in the past year alone – and has failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more in fines that it is contesting.

    Blankenship’s attitude towards workers is showcased in a memo addressing safety concerns in his mines. In the memo, he told his superintendents to put coal production first because, “[T]his memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.”

    While we are all discussing and recognizing these important issues today, we must be mindful to address them every day until all working people can go to jobs in safety. Strict enforcement of regulations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the additional protections a union membership brings are key factors to improving worker safety, and we will work to achieve that goal. In the meantime, let’s continue to pray for the safety of the missing miners.

    ###

  • David Skiles says:

    Well, take Rich Trumpka’s press release as gospel, please! You don’t need to tell me mining is dangerous, I know, I have seen it 1st hand.

  • sorry to get to the party so late, but here goes…

    this post and my position is not about political gain, it’s about basic worker safety. for my first 20 years in the fire department we traded places with the miners on annual deaths, the primarily through our union IAFF.org we reduced our annuals while the miners were the uncontested leaders in workplace deaths.

    this tragedy has nothing to do with Cooch. he’s so inept if he tried to screw with safety it would get better.

    the current state is mine safety and this terrible incident is Bush’s legacy. he eviscerated OSHA and the MSHA. he cut budgets, eased up on inspections, allowed many more appeals, and generally was a pimp for coal companies. and Massey was a primary benefactor.

    congress added some tough laws after a few mid term bush disasters, but the bush appointee (an anti-union coal company executive) in MSHA was an excellent foot dragger.

    O’s appointment of Joe Main was finally approved 11/09 (all that vexing filibuster stuff) and he immediately started to rebuild the agency. sorta like making FEMA work again.

    this is Bush’s baby, and the baby of the greedy, especially that SOB Massey CEO who stated in a document acquired in another court case, “production is the top priority over all others including safety.”

    b

  • Looks loke there’s some merit to the union rumor after all.
    What won’t the Unions do to rake in their swill? After seeing the SEIU in action, I hope people get a real snootfull of what these malcontents are after.

  • Dan says:

    “What won’t the Unions do to rake in their swill?”
    .
    One could just as easily ask, “how many lives will Massey Energy endanger to rake in their swill”.
    .
    I get it Monk. You are reflexively anti-union. I don’t expect you to acknowledge what Brian wrote about the positive role the UMWA plays in workplace safety. That is an inconvenient fact that is not consistent with your anti-union ideology. But if you could take your ideological blinders off for just a moment you might be able to realize that pointing out that Massey is an irresponsible operator that has a demonstrated disregard for safety is not an indictment of the entire industry. Nor is it expressing either a pro or anti union position.
    .
    This company pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the death of two miners just four years ago. Not civil. Criminal. They have made choices to put the more rapid extraction of coal ahead of operating safely and within the law. They have made a calculation that some amount of additional profit is more important than the safety of miners. If paying a fine and continuing to operate in an unsafe manner yielded more money than correcting safety issues, they chose the money over worker safety.
    .
    It is a shame to watch people use their antipathy toward unions in general as an excuse to defend the indefensible actions of Massey. Massey gives honest, responsibly run businesses a bad name.
    .
    The irony is that you are making the case for the union’s role in ensuring safety. Massey is a non-union shop. Those miners didn’t have the UMWA nudging MSHA to act more forcefully to get Massey to address the identified safety violations.
    .
    Companies like Massey are why unions exist and are needed. If you want to make unions go away (which you seem to) then you need to make criminal companies like Massey either go away or act with some sense of responsibility. Something they have shown little inclination to do.

  • Cato the Elder says:

    “the current state is mine safety and this terrible incident is Bush’s legacy. he eviscerated OSHA and the MSHA. he cut budgets, eased up on inspections, allowed many more appeals, and generally was a pimp for coal companies.”
    *
    OK. So what you’re saying is that even though you guys have been controlling all the levers of power for almost a year and a half you are so incapable of governing that you couldn’t even affect necessary beaurocratic changes that would have prevented this terrible tragedy. Perhaps if you hadn’t focused all of your energy on creating a monsterous 3 trillion dollar entitlement program you could have tended to the day-to-day operations that would have actually saved lives. How many more lives will your incompetence cost?

  • Dan says:

    Cato, you illustrate exactly why this should not be turned into a political football. I sure don’t want to be talking about George W. Bush over this. I want to keep the spotlight trained on the actions of Massey Energy and the pattern of their behavior when it comes to safety issues.
    .
    Whether it was the SEC or MSHA, we all know the Bush administration had little taste for enforcing existing regulations and weakened them pretty much where ever they could. So what! We can’t save lives (or people’s investments) in the past. We can only do that in the present and the future.
    .
    Let’s simply look at those past mistakes and make the proper changes going forward. Twenty-five miners died. And maybe they didn’t have to. Seeing that more don’t die needlessly in the future should be the priority.
    .
    I’m sure Mr. Blankenship would just love for the country to be arguing over the virtues of a past administration or the merits of organized labor rather than focusing on the way he does business. Let’s not do him that favor. Let’s keep the spotlight on Massey Energy.

  • Elder Berry says:

    Cato, the Republicans in Congress took their sweet time confirming Hilda Solis (and they are still rather petulantly holding many Obama appointees hostage) so it’s disingenuous for anyone here to fault her for inaction in her relatively short time in office. George Bush did indeed eviscerate almost every regulatory agency in the federal government for eight long years, and we are seeing the sad results. Food safety, drug safety, industrial safety are areas where lax regulation and inspection have potentially severe consequences. So maybe next time some liberal proposes a mine regulation, a conservative, thinking of this and other mining disasters, will seek to make it better or more effective, and to pass it, not to defeat it. It is a proper role of government to regulate commerce to ensure health and safety, and more Republicans should embrace that role and help to ensure it is done properly, respecting workers, consumers and business owners.

  • Elder Berry says:

    One more thing. Alton, I also come from a mining family, and I know what coal dust smells like. According to reports, there were clear known problems with the ventilation in this mine. Supervisors knew about the problems. Men having to go into the mine were scared. It’s also been determined that the escape routes were not properly ventilated.

    Dozens of people are killed every year in all kinds of workplace accidents. Usually workplace accidents happen because someone has put short-term profits ahead of safety. Businesses can be made both safe and profitable, but too often the two goals are put at odds by rigid attitudes, and the language I’ve seen quoted from Blankenship was that kind of rigid language. The coal industry has inherent dangers, and mine owners have a duty to take every risk to their miners as seriously as if it was to themselves. It does not sound right now as if these owners did any better than the owners of the Sago mine. You all here might want to read the wikipedia entry for the Sago mine. That was 2006.

  • Cato the Elder says:

    “Cato, the Republicans in Congress took their sweet time confirming Hilda Solis (and they are still rather petulantly holding many Obama appointees hostage) so it’s disingenuous for anyone here to fault her for inaction in her relatively short time in office.”
    *
    So what? Blaming the confirmation process for your incompetence is a delusional position. Your whiney and petulent attempts to blame everything on Bush ring hollow – the man is a distant memory. You wanted to lead, and you were handed large majorities and the Presidency in 2008 to do so. Now it seems all you want to do is cry about how hard it is. A year and a half is a long time. Instead of frittering away your time on ideological legislation, perhaps it’s time to reflect on how you could have more wisely invested that time. The problem with your side is you never seem able to take responsibility for your own (in)actions. You want to make this a political issue, fine, but you don’t get to pretend that you weren’t afforded ample time to fix problems.

  • The 2006 laws governing this industry at the Federal level are full of loopholes. They seem almost by design, these loopholes…

  • Elder Berry says:

    In the mining industry fixing problems usually takes regulations and enforcement. Republicans don’t like either of those things, Cato, and argue hard against them. They call it ideological legislation.

    Whatever you say, Bush dismantled or rendered nearly disfunctional many regulatory agencies, and it takes more than a few months to fix that, especially when there is delay in getting the top positions filled.

    Beyond that, got to strongly disagree with those who say this mine was no worse than most. According to a Friday Washington Post front page article, a former federal regulator said the mine’s number of serious violations was “off the charts,” at almost 12 times the national average. The mine had to be evacuated 64 times since 2009. Ventilation violations 2-3 times the national average. Last March a test showed that it was circulating less than half the volume of air needed to keep down the volume of coal dust and methane. In January, for three weeks a foreman allowed air to flow the wrong way in a ventilation system, despite a citation.

    Like I said, every time I hear a Republican say that we have too much regulation, I’m going to think of this mine.

  • […] tried to use the West Virginia coal mine disaster to bash McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli. After calling them out on it, I thought that, at the very least, they might choose to take the high road the next time […]

  • […] As I noted three weeks ago, coal mining remains one of the most dangerous jobs in America.  I sincerely hope that the inspection efforts the Obama Administration is undertaking in response to the Big Branch mine disaster earlier this month will help make these mines safer for the men and women who work them.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the lost men. […]

  • […] tried to use the West Virginia coal mine disaster to bash McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli. After calling them out on it, I thought that, at the very least, they might choose to take the high road the next time […]

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