Police Officer at the entrance to the Upper Big Branch mine photo by Chris Kean, Reuters (courtesy of Corp Watch)
"What corporations can get away with legally in the United States while ignoring the costs they impose on the public is bad enough. But it's even worse to see a corporation brazenly and repeatedly break mine-safety laws, destroy pristine mountains and rivers, and crush worker rights—and get away with it all, again and again".The death of 25 miners in a massive explosion in a West Virginia coal mine is the worst US mine disaster in 25 years .
The deaths shed light on a coal company whose behavior points to the evils of corporate capitalism. Human life and the environment are expendable commodities, always secondary to the pursuit and protection of corporate profit and corporate power, and corporations use their wealth and political power against democracy.
The Upper Big Branch Mine where the explosion occurred, is owned by the Massey Energy Company, the largest producer of coal in Appalachia. Massey operates 47 mines in the Appalachian region and generated revenue of $2.3 billion in 2009 from its mining operations.
Massey Energy has a long "criminal" record of safety and environmental violations at the mine where the explosions occurred, as well at its other mining operations. In March 2010 the Upper Big Branch mine was cited for 53 safety violations, and in 2009 the number of citations against the mine doubled and penalties imposed tripled (to $897,325). The mine has been the site of other fatalities in recent years. Corp Watch cites comments from subcontractors at the mine who said that the mine had been unsafe for years. The company pushed the mine for more coal production- and more profit- at any cost
In 2008 a Massey subsidiary paid the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry after pleading guilty to safety violations that contributed to the deaths of 2 miners. The company has continually been fined for violations of safety and environmental laws.
It is hard to believe the appalling track record of Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship (described in articles by Michael Winship and Roger Bybee). Blankenship has been described as the scariest polluter in the US and as "evil".
As Winship describes it, Blankenship has banned unions from his mines, denies global warming and climate change, supports the anti regulation agenda of conservative free market think tanks and uses his money and power to influence political and legal decision making. As Roger Bybee sees it, Massey Energy has such wealth and political power that it has outgrown the restraints of democracy. Bybee writes:
When Blankenship became infuriated with all the safety, environmental, and labor-law violations with which Massey was being hit, he took action. He used his wealth to essentially buy two State Supreme Court seats in West Virginia, where many of Massey's mine operations are located.The Corp Watch piece quotes commentators who describe Massey Energy as one of the worst companies in the industry
This is an example of unbridled capitalism at its most evil. It raises a fundamental question- how can such a recidivist corporate offender can be allowed to continue to operate. It highlights the need to introduce what Richard Grossman and others call the corporate death penalty- the ability to revoke the charter to operate of corporations that continually and knowingly break the law. In essence this means losing the state's permission to exist as a corporation, thereby putting the corporation out of existence.
If corporations want to claim the rights of ordinary citizens, to free speech for example, then it is time they also face the penalties for crimes committed against people and the environment.