Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Deaths at W. Va. Coal Mine Raise Safety Issues:

MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Rescue workers began the precarious task Tuesday of removing explosive methane gas from the coal mine where at least 25 miners died the day before. The mine owner’s dismal safety record, along with several recent evacuations of the mine, left federal officials and miners suggesting that Monday’s explosion might have been preventable.

In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records.

Not only that, but these big coal companies actively fight strict laws and regulations by filing more appeals:

Mining companies have been able to fend off this tougher regulatory approach[es] by challenging more of the citations filed against them.

As recently as March, for example, federal mine inspectors found dangerous coal dust accumulations during two separate inspections at the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of an explosion on Monday that killed at least 25 miners.

The appeals “are also allowing miners, in some cases the worst operators, to escape liability for which they are in fact liable and continue to put miners in harm’s way,” Mr. Miller said at the hearing.
Which makes this, defacto, criminal behavior, according to criminologist Jeffrey Reiman, who has written about this kind of white-collar crime for years.
My question is, why wasn't the death of the miners also murder? Why weren't those responsible for subjecting ten miners to deadly conditions also 'mass murderers.' Why do ten dead miners amount to an 'accident' and a 'tragedy', but five dead commuters shot on a subway is a 'mass murder'? [Words like] accident and tragedy suggest the work of impersonal forces, but the charge against the company that owned the mine said that they repeatedly exposed the mine's work crews to danger [...]

My aim is to point to the blinders we wear when we look at such an 'accident.' Didn't those miners have a right to protection from the violence that took their lives? And if not, why not?
It is interesting that since the explosion, words like "accident" and "tragedy" and "disaster" have been used over and over, suggesting, as Reiman points out, that there was nothing that could have been done to stop it. As the Times pieces above note, there was plenty that could of been done to stop this.

As Reiman also illustrates, murder suggests intent to harm, and one would assume the mining executives at this company didn't want their workers harmed.

So while we can probably take the word "murder" out of the equation, it is definitely a tragedy that these miners met their demise at the hands of an industry that finds it cheaper to fight safety regulations than adhere to them. Sending workers into unsafe, potentially lethal work conditions may not be criminal homicide, but it sure as hell isn't an "accident."

So what to call it? Another example of how white-collar crime kills people, and how few persons, if any, will ever be held responsible for these 25 deaths.


Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

There is such a thing as criminal negligence; also negligent homicide. Of course, a prosecutor would have to bring charges. And if Blankenship can buy judges, he's probably been able to buy prosecutors as well.