21 Apr 2010

The sorrow of West Virginia

Some of you may have heard of the 25-plus coal miners who died in an "accident" at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine. What you may not have heard is this:
In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the UBB mine 515 times, often for problems with its ventilation and escape-route plans. Some 48 of the citations were for violations deemed likely to lead to serious injury or illness.

The Massey Energy Company, which owns the UBB mine, is contesting many of those violations. But this is not the first time that Massey—the fourth-largest coal company in America—has come under fire for its safety practices. In 2006 two people died in a fire at the Aracoma mine, which Massey owns and which was found to have inadequate water supplies and poor ventilation. Massey paid $4.2m in criminal and civil fines. In 2008 Massey paid $20m in fines levied by the Environmental Protection Agency for clean-water violations.

Don Blankenship, Massey’s boss... called safety violations “a normal part of the mining process”.
I've a few things to say about this:
  1. Fuck you, Blankenship. (Yeah, sorry, but I gotta say it.)
  2. Massey and Blankenship should be tried for corporate manslaughter.
  3. West Virginia politicians are not serving their citizens; they are owned by resource extraction companies. After a change in administration, the EPA is finally slowing down mountaintop removal coal mining; see this post for more background. 
  4. Marilyn Hunt read my piece on human rights and wrote, asking about their right to be free on pollution from "fracking":*
    My site is from rural Wetzel Co West Virginia. My husband Robert N Hunt is a research scientist so his friends at Bayer Pittsburgh have been doing free water tests finding Toluene, benzene, and other chemicals in wells and springs and now we are learning biocides are in the water too.

    The air is also contaminated, workers have died here most not knowing what the chemicals were they handled or how to handle the pipes. Total SA is accused of crimes against humanity and is Chesapeake Energy's new partner.

    No one knew what these people were going to do and they said they used only salt water to "frac". I kept them off my farm by hiring a good lawyer but many people signed leases and now they have no top soil and contaminated water.

    Today I got an email that animal deaths are increasing in Pennsylvania and that ducks with multiple beaks are hatching out. We now have water testing from here up to Pittsburgh with our volunteer effort. Corruption of officials and state regulators has led us to the Region 3 EPA for enforcement but things are moving so slowly, we also are getting help from Sierra Club and Joe Lovett environmental activist who took on the coal cos. Halliburton got the frac drilling exempted from the Clean Water Act in 2005, opening the way for the concealment of chemicals and methods.

    People are getting sick and many do not know what they are going to do.
What, indeed, can we do when companies pay to get the laws changed in their favor, pollute without fear of prosecution and lie to people who cannot discover the truth on their own. West Virginia has more in common with Angola or Nigeria than their neighbors in Virginia. Why do those neighbors have nice clean water, air and soil? Because they commute to Washington DC, where they enforce laws to ensure that their neighborhoods are safe and clean.

Bottom Line: Can we get a little justice here, please?

* Using water to hydrologically fracture hardrock, to extract natural gas. I've ignored fracking until now, but I -- like others -- wonder if the process of pressure injecting water and "proprietary" chemicals underground, and then draining the waste into local watersheds is really such a good idea. Fracking is certainly not harmless, those chemicals are probably not harmless, and those who extract are not taking responsibility for the environmental harm they are causing. This is just terrible.
Addendum: Manslaughter charges are justified (via JWT): "A comparison between Massey’s safety practices and those of other operators in the coal industry shows sharp differences"


  1. Hi David-- all too true unfortunately... WV remsins a colony embedded in the lower 48, with upwards of 90% of the state owned by people who don't live there.

    Extractive industry has hacked out a very clear legal path to mine, drill, blast and cut with relative impunity. In rare cases when a judge or the EPA has seriously threatened business as usual (judge Hayden, RIP) everyone from the operators to the politcians has cried foul and argued that the threat to business as usual was the main threat to wv people.

    The mineral rights rush happening in the Marcellus region right now is a separate although equally ominous issue compared to mountaintop removal mining. Check out the poisoning of Dunkard Creek for starters... Deep tight gas reservoir fracturing will be centered in wv and pa.

    It is crucial that the true economies and the true costs of extractive industry be laid clear and openly. The wealth of scientific data demonstrating the threat to human health (not to mention ecosystem-wide health) are available now and should lead with those most directly affected-- thousands of mostly voiceless and displaced Appalachian folk-- to challenge business as usual. International media is key in conecting the elements and retaining timelines.

  2. And if that's not enough, Massey also has a history of buying off judges in WV to sway court cases their way - http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5573RU20090608


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