A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

No Canaries in This Coal Mine

Opponents of Obama’s health care reform forwarded the opinion that sweeping reform wasn’t necessary. They argued that reform should be done in increments, and even then not accomplished through government mandate but rather through the goodwill of private industry. I’m guessing that by increments they meant progress at speeds of less than .000000001 miles per year. By my estimation, the health insurance industry has been around, more or less, since the 1840’s. If the insurance industry really wanted to implement universal health coverage, I’m sure they could have done it anytime they chose to in the last 170 years.

The argument was laughable, but the latest result of government relying on private industry to enact policies for the common good is no laughing matter. On April 5, an explosion inside the Massey Energy Company’s Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 mine workers. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States since 1970, and if reports about the mine being cited for multiple safety violations is correct, then it will probably not be the last.

Twenty nine dead! My father would calculate that every one of those miners represented a family — a unit of at least four people. My father’s math would quickly tally up that actually the lives of 116 people were altered, shattered and otherwise changed forever by the event. His family could empathize with the risks of coal mining: my great-grandfather lost both legs in a mining accident, or so family lore states. When that happened, all six of his children were obligated to leave school and get meaningful employment to support the family.

All of that is ancient history, but the ongoing struggle for life and livelihood still goes on in America’s coal industry today. The media coverage for the latest disaster has been particularly grim. Since the initial explosion and rescue efforts started, the stories have come quickly about the theorized cause — a buildup of methane gas — and it how could be related to the mine owner’s response to past safety violations.

Massey Energy was slapped with a record fine for a deadly fire in 2006. The latest incident was preceded by 495 safety violations lodged against the company by federal officials. Some reports suggest that the company used its time and energy into appealing the fines rather than actually fixing the ventilation system inside the mine. What a waste, if these reports are true.

So what can be done to prevent such disasters in the future? Sadly, with the present regulatory environment the way it is, the answer is not much. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is the federal government’s canary — the traditional early warning system for gas in the mines. MSHA has been considerably weakened by regulatory loopholes and everyday political business as usual.

The massive fines levied against Massey Energy for past safety violations? Unpaid, pending their appeal of the violation, which is legal under present law. Safety upgrades in the mines which could save lives? Undone, also as per the weak regulatory laws which allow the company to do nothing pending appeal. Miners who don’t know any other livelihood than the ones their fathers and grandfathers passed down to them? Unliving due to the emphasis of production over safety by politically well-connected corporations.

Can the government shut down the offending companies? Not practical, because it would take thousands of jobs with it. Can mine company executives be held criminally responsible for the casualties their negligent policies have caused? An intriguing idea which I hope the Justice Department will consider. Paying fines are nothing to big companies, but perhaps if a few executives do hard time for involuntary manslaughter, then they might think twice about spending money on lawyers rather than solutions.

In the course of this blog, I have used such terms as disaster, event, and incident to describe the explosion at Big Branch last week. Maybe we shouldn’t use such soft terms. We should just call this for what it is: mass murder. Of course we can’t prove that mine owners intended to kill their workers, but the result is the same in any event.

Those people in Congress and in tea party gatherings railing against big government should work in a coal mine for awhile. They might just have an epiphany...

(Thank you for reading. Please remember that many sacrifices that move this country forward don’t always happen in a war zone.)


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