Mining tragedy uncovering worker safety issues – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I heard on the radio yesterday that the infamous CEO of Massey Energy, Don L. Blankenship, owner of the coal mine that killed 29 workers in West Virginia this month, made $17.5 million last year, not including his deferred compensation  (That 2009 pay represents a $6.8 million raise over 2008 and almost double his compensation package in 2007. Blankenship also has a deferred compensation package valued at $27.2 million at the end of last year.)

This information was contained in a report to shareholders the company is set to release at their annual shareholder meeting. This story prompted me to go back and look at Massey’s shareholder report from last year. I fell upon these ominous sentences in press release on Massey’s 2009 Shareholder Report:

“In response to weak economic conditions, Blankenship reiterated plans to cut operating costs as much as possible while adjusting production levels that are in line with consumer demand. The company has already reduced overtime and implemented a meaningful reduction in base pay and benefits.”

Blankenship is said to be obsessed with the productivity of his mines, checking production levels every few hours. His comments from last year’s shareholder report  portray a company that is trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of the mine by reducing hours and benefits of the workers—and tragically, in the case of this mining company, short-changing the safety of the miners. An analysis conducted by NPR News found that 10 of Massey’s coal mines had injury rates in 2009 that exceeded the national rate. Miners in four of those mines, including Upper Big Branch, were injured at rates more than double the national rate. The 10 mines together received 2,400 federal safety violation citations last year.

Mining is a dangerous occupation. NCL acknowledged that in a letter to the Mine Safety and Health Administration sent earlier this month. Those who live in the small towns with coal mines often have few employment options. The inherent dangers in mining – methane gas inhalation, black lung disease from coal dust, and mine collapsing – compel the owners to do everything in their power to make the work as safe as possible. Having a union presence inside the mines is a way to ensure better safety, but CEO Blankenship fought to keep the union out, and he succeeded.

If companies won’t make mines safer and if they fight the union, then federal regulations have to be even tougher, mine inspections more frequent, and violations correctly quickly or the mine should not be permitted to operate (while workers should be paid if the mine is shut down for safety reasons). That process has been stymied by the mine owners’ ability to appeal fines and violations ad infinitum, in the process risking the lives of workers. We have seen the tragic results of these failed policies.

Massey Energy and Murray Energy, the two U.S. mining companies with the worst safety records, have been the sites of at least three accidents in the past decade, claiming 40 lives. The two companies together have more than 5,700 hundred safety violations, according to today’s Washington Post.

The juxtaposition of Massey Electric CEO Blankenship’s outsized salary against the myriad safety violations at his mining sites – that just this month has left 29 families without their fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles, and neighbors, is deeply troubling. It’s a shocking example of how, all too often, we allow profits to come before people, and weak regulations and lax enforcement to triumph over worker safety.  NCL welcomes President Obama speaking out for far more rigorous regulation of mines. We stand with the United Mine Workers union in insisting that all miners be represented by unions that will be a voice for safety. We hope this mining tragedy and all that it has uncovered will mean we get serious about mine safety and that no more miners have to die while corporate profits – and CEO salaries – soar.