West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine was a disaster even before it exploded into an underground inferno last year, killing 29 miners.
A new investigative report by federal safety inspectors found that this mine — owned by the enormously profitable Massey Energy Corporation — was essentially a man-made hellhole. Top executives intentionally hid dangerous safety problems from regulators, failed to maintain (and sometimes actually disabled) safety systems, and aggressively pushed a mining ethic of profit over safety, intimidating and firing those who complained about hazards.
What we have here is another grotesque example of America’s “de-reg follies.” Corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues have yoked our nation to an ongoing, corrupt policy of accepting worker deaths as a necessary cost of doing business. Although Massey was recently taken over by Alpha Natural Resources, the new owner has been hiring former Massey executives, including two who had direct oversight of the Upper Big Branch mine. Then, in a move that puts the “numb” in numbskull, Alpha even hired Massey’s chief executive to run its mine safety program.
The most craven players, however, are in Congress. Republicans and a few coal-state Democrats have cynically blocked passage of tougher mine safety laws that would stop the murderous greed of coal profiteers.
Fed up with this, Gene Jones, whose twin brother Dean was killed in the Massey disaster, says he’s going to Washington to confront each one of these political scoundrels. “If you continue to wait [on Congress], it’s going to happen again,” he says. “It’s time to do something. I’m just going to speak out the best I can and be honest about it. And make them listen to me.”