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Massey's Despicable Conduct

Looking at the corporate misconduct that led to last year’s terrible mining disaster in West Virginia, a few words spring to mind. And while "repugnant" might be an understatement, at least it’s printable. Federal findings announced earlier this week determined that the mine’s owner at the time of the blast, Massey Energy, manipulated safety records to keep inspectors in the dark about dangerous conditions.

These findings come on the heels of another report on the disaster conducted by state investigators which, according to the New York Times "blamed Massey and a culture of impunity for the explosion. But these findings went further, saying that Massey took systematic and premeditated steps to circumvent government inspections."

Among the most disturbing discoveries by investigators is that Massey management seems to have pressured workers not to note dangerous conditions in official safety records and that workers who attempted to report risks faced intimidation.

The deliberate manipulation of safety records by Massey is infuriating. That the tragedy was preventable makes the loss of 29 lives in the disaster even more disgusting.

In a presentation in Beaver, W. Va., Mr. Stricklin [of the Mine Safety and Health Administration] offered a stinging indictment of Massey practices, saying the federal investigation by more than 100 people had been able to rule out the company’s assertion that the explosion on April 5, 2010, happened because of an event beyond its control: a huge inundation of gas.

His findings matched those of the earlier report, conducted by a former federal mine safety chief, Davitt McAteer, which said that coal dust had been allowed to accumulate, spreading what had been a small ignition of methane through the mine and creating the deadliest mine blast in 40 years. “We are further along than this just being our theory,” Mr. Stricklin said. “This is our conclusion.”

A strong message must be sent that companies should not be allowed to pursue profits at the expense of their workers’ well being. Those responsible for falsifying records should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – and a legal basis exists to do so.

[W]hile mines sometimes resort to shortcuts, noting that all is well when something needs to be fixed, doing so could result in criminal charges, because falsifying records is a felony under federal mining laws, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky-based lawyer who specializes in coal industry cases.

Making sure that those who are criminally liable for the disaster are held responsible should make others think twice before circumventing safety regulations – helping to prevent future tragedies. Accountability for the disaster should be followed up the chain of command as far as it goes, with accompanying prosecutions. At this point, a foreman and a previous head of security at Massey have been indicted, but no managers from the company have been charged with a crime; 18 executives took advantage of their Fifth Amendment rights and declined to be interviewed during the course of the feds' investigation.

Stronger regulation for the industry seems likely to be another positive step towards preventing a repeat of this tragedy. Although federal regulators have proposed new safety rules developed after the West Virginia blast – measures that the United Mine Workers union testified in support of – it should come as no surprise that there has been resistance from the industry.

The newly proposed regulations may not necessarily be the best way forward, with officials from both West Virginia and Illinois coming out against the measures, but one thing is clear: the industry cannot be trusted to regulate itself.