The massive explosion in a mine in Montcoal, West Virginia last Monday, April 5th, killed 29 miners and left another miner in critical condition. These miners were fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Their deaths are a tragedy for their families and the community of Montcoal, who spent the past weekend at funerals, burying their loved ones.
The miners worked for Massey Energy Company, the fourth largest coal company in the U.S., known for its big profits, lack of safety, and disregard for the environment.
Last year, Massey made 2.2 billion dollars. The company recently paid $1.4 million in a settlement for environmental violations. The company is a leading proponent of what is called “mountaintop removal,” a process of literally blowing up the top of a mountain in order to get at the coal seam underneath. This process is devastating to local communities; it pollutes rivers and streams, dries up wells, even leads to cracks in nearby houses. Coal companies prefer this kind of mining because it’s cheaper than normal drilling.
Massey has one of the highest accident rates of all mining companies. Prior to the April 5th explosion, more than 13 people have died on record working in a Massey-owned mine in the past five years. In March alone, there were 53 safety violations, 495 in 2009 and 1300 since 2005, all in the Upper Big Branch Mine, the mine where Monday’s explosion occurred. Last year, Massey paid $380,000 dollars in fines for safety violations. But to coal companies, fines are just part of production costs – it’s cheaper for coal companies to violate safety laws and pay the fines than it is to operate the mine under safe working conditions.
Coal companies are after profits. The more coal they can extract and the faster they can get it done, the more money they can make. Coal companies have an incentive to cut corners and keep workers underground longer, even in unsafe conditions.
A constant danger in coal mines is the release of highly flammable methane gas. When the gas is released, a spark can ignite it and an explosion can occur. When methane is detected, the miners should be removed from the mine, and production stopped until the gas is released. But coal companies lose money if they stop production, so often miners have to keep working even when it’s released. The explosion on April 5th was likely caused by a leak of methane gas.
Since the explosion, Massey Energy Company has put on the typical dog and pony show that follows these kinds of tragedies. The company issues a statement of apology and deep concern to the families of the victims. They offer to pay for the funeral and give the family a small amount of compensation. This is all followed by a superficial investigation into the cause of the explosion, and the promise of improving safety conditions and legislation. But nothing they do will make up for this tragedy or insure that it doesn’t happen again.
In fact, this accident isn’t really accidental but just a normal part of the coal industry, where tragedy is part of the game and killing is part of profit. In the coal industry, there were nine deaths from an explosion in 2007, 17 deaths in 2006, and 13 deaths in 2001, all from single explosions. Safety laws only go so far. No law can change the fact that coal companies make money operating under unsafe conditions.
It’s the same kind of story in every major industry: profits first, everything else last. Banks will throw millions of people into the streets just to make more money. Corporations will lay people off to make more money. This is true in hospitals, in auto, in transportation, in manufacturing, in every industry that exists to make money – nothing matters but profit.