LET US HANG DOWN OUR HEAD AND CRY - Big Branch Disaster: Three Years Later

(04/06/2013)

COMMENT Bob Weaver

It is the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster.

Twenty-nine Upper Big Branch miners were killed in the April 5, 2010, explosion.

Like most mining disasters, it was called an "accident" or just another "act of god."

Five years prior the explosion, Massey Energy had received 1,422 citations for safety violations at the mine and was assessed $1.89 million in penalties.

MSHA released its final report on December 6, 2011, concluding that flagrant safety violations contributed to a coal dust explosion. It issued 369 citations at that time, assessing $10.8 million in penalties.

After the explosion, legal teams were hired to deal with a backlog of contested mine safety citations. The number of unresolved appeals had grown to 16,600, and Massey Energy, then owner of Upper Big Branch, had the highest contestation rate of any coal mine in the nation.

Now, the Litigation Backlog Project is being shuttered, with 30 of the 74 lawyers hired for the effort being laid off by June 1.

MSHA itself has been blamed for ignoring critical safety violations, regulators long playing cat-and-mouse games with Mountain State extractors, giving them a free pass to King Coal.

The coal outfits and their political allies have said such enforcement is a "war on coal."

Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought Massey Energy in 2011, settled its corporate criminal liabilities with the U.S. Attorney for $209 million.

Investigation of personal criminal liability continues, with one former superintendent, Gary May, pleading guilty in March 2012, and "confess[ing] to conspiring to 'impede the [MSHA]'s enforcement efforts'".

In April 2012, producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. said it will permanently close Upper Big Branch.

In Denise Giardina's book "Storming Heaven," she wrote about King Coal - "It stole everything it hadn't bothered to buy, land deeds, private homes, and ultimately, the souls of its men and women."

For those victims and their families, after the wailing of politicians about the tragedy and the protestations of over- regulation, we can only "hang down our head and cry."


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