How Do We Hold a Corporation Responsible?

06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just two weeks ago, over 300 people gathered at the U.S. Dept. of Labor in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, and a record low number of fatalities in the U.S. mining industry.

Among the celebrants were Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Assistant Secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration Joe Main, members of congress, industry, union members, families who had lost loved ones in previous mine disasters. It was a "feel good" moment. It was a time of believing that this country had reached a remarkable plateau in mine safety. We all believed that mine disasters were a thing of the past.

What a difference a few days make.

Today, 29 miners are dead from an explosion in the Upper Branch Mine in West Virginia, owned by Massey Coal Co. Four miners are missing. There is now a confirmed fire along with methane gas. It's an atmosphere ripe for a second explosion.

So with this backdrop, it's fair to ask how this could happen in 2010.

First, Massey Coal is no stranger to disasters. Two miners died in its 2006 Aracoma Mine disaster. It could have been worse. Investigators found hundreds of violations. The company pled guilty to criminal charges, paid a $2.5 million fine, and settled its case with MSHA for $1.7 million in civil penalties.

After Massey's Aracoma disaster, U.S. Attorney Charles Miller said the Aracoma case was intended to send a message to other coal companies that willful violation of health and safety regulations will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

It apparently did not work.

Massey stock prices are dropping following Monday's disaster, but some analysts recommend buying shares based on the company's contracts for metallurgical coal. Massey has promised to ramp up production in other mines.

Curiously the only individuals who might be held personally liable under the Mine Act for the current disaster are the mine supervisors and foremen. There are no provisions to hold accountable those people who are responsible for safety policies and procedures, or the corporate executives who insisted it was more important to "run coal" than to build ventilation controls, or the board of directors, which is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the corporation.

Maybe it's time that changed.

So given this backdrop, we need to ask:

What did the company learn?

How do we hold a company responsible?

Where are the board of directors?

Ellen Smith is the award-winning editor of Mine Safety and Health News, a print-only newsletter covering the mining industry. She has been covering mining issues since 1987.