Over at ThinkProgress, Brad Johnson pulls video of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship registering complaints in June of 2009 that the safety rules governing mines were "difficult to comply with" and "nonsensical."
Maybe this was a big red flag that something terrible would one day happen?
BLANKENSHIP: They're very difficult to comply with. There's so many of the laws that are, if you will, nonsensical from an engineering or a coal mining viewpoint. A lot of the politicians, they get emotional, as does the public, about the most recent accident, and it's easy to get laws on the books that are not truly helping the health or safety of coal miners. I think we need to be very pragmatic and very careful when we're passing laws of that nature to make sure that we create as much safety and as much health as can be created for each of the resources we expend.
Of course, another way of saying that the rules are "difficult to comply with" is to say: "On the other hand, we're just fine racking up multiple violations." The Washington Independent's Mike Lillis notes that Massey pretty much excelled in this arena:
The Upper Big Branch Mine, the site of the explosion that's killed at least 25 miners, was either fully or partly closed 61 times for safety reasons in 2009 and 2010, the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. is reporting this afternoon, citing Labor Department documents prepared for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Officials from the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 54 withdrawal orders to the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009 and seven so far in 2010, according to the documents.
Fifty-four of those withdrawal orders "were issued when inspectors found Massey subsidiary Performance Coal exhibited an 'unwarrantable failure' to comply with federal health and safety standards," Ward writes.
There's a distinction to be made here. Issuing withdrawal orders is different than closing the mine altogether, which would require MSHA to get court approval first. In cases of closure, officials would have to prove that mine operators showed "a pattern of violations" -- a step that's been complicated by the skyrocketing number of appeals being filed by mining companies to protest citations. (After all, how do you prove a pattern based on violations that are in dispute?)
One also has to wryly laugh at Blankenship's criticism of "emotional" politicians overreacting to mining accidents. In fact, as far as his relationship with public officials is concerned, Blankenship has paid the cost to be the boss. Yesterday, Brad Johnson wrote up a detailed history of Massey's record of safety lowlights, and the following highlights put a spotlight on just how Blankenship's influence paid off:
Massey rewarded Republicans with massive donations after the company avoided paying billions in fines for a 2000 coal slurry disaster in Martin County, three times bigger than the Exxon Valdez."
Federal Mine Inspector Who Wanted To Shut Down Mine Told To "Back Off." Days before fire broke out in the Aracoma mine, a federal mine inspector tried to close down that section of the mine, but "was told by his superior to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal." Massey failed to notify authorities of the fire until two hours after the disaster. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/23/06]"
Sen. McConnell and Wife Stopped MSHA Investigation. U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Chao "put on the brakes" on the MSHA investigation into the spill by placing a McConnell staffer in charge. In 2002 a $5,600 fine was levied. That September Massey gave $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by McConnell. [Lexington Herald-Leader, 10/2/06, OpenSecrets]
Based upon the Washington Post's reporting today, it seems that not every mining operation is having the same difficulty complying with safety regulations that Blankenship is:
But many mine experts said the Upper Big Branch's record is much worse than the records of comparable mines. Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said that she compared its record of serious violations -- 48 in 2009 and 10 this year -- to three other mines, and that Upper Big Branch was by far the worst.
The well-regarded Deer Creek mine in Utah had one such violation in the past 15 years; the West Ridge mine in Utah, whose owner has complained about MSHA inspections, had six last year; and the Jim Walters Resources Number 7 mine in Alabama, with three times as many miners underground, had two such citations.
The Post similarly reports that it's not like Blankenship has been particularly burdened by regulators, despite its persistent tendency to rack up safety violations.
The agency has the power to seek federal court orders or injunctions against mines showing a pattern of violation and posing a hazard to the health and safety of miners. The agency has never used that authority, officials said.
That's the "nonsensical" part, right there.