There is a dispiriting and, yes, heartbreaking sameness about how we respond to mining disasters. The catastrophe at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, has taken at least twenty-five lives. An entire community stands in solidarity with the families of the victims, and hopes that some miners still trapped may yet be rescued.
We celebrate the stoic sturdiness of miners who pursue their work with pride, bravery, and full knowledge of the risks it entails. Then we get to the questions about what might have been done to avert the disaster. What was the role of the company that ran the mine? What are the responsibilities of lawmakers and government regulators whose job it is to devise and enforce rules to protect those who, as an old union song put it, dig the coal so the world can run?
We went through exactly this cycle after the Sago Mine catastrophe that took twelve lives in January 2006. Later in the year, Congress passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act. The MINER Act, as it is known, is "the most significant mine safety legislation in thirty years," according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Web site.
The law strengthened the agency's staff, increased penalties for violations, and, as the Washington Postreported, "led to a higher number of citations and penalties—and more challenges by companies." That last phrase is important. Companies just don't like regulation, and Don L. Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy, has a history of challenging the regulators in every way he can.
Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine has been cited for safety violations 1,342 times since 2005. Eighty-six of those citations involved failing to follow a mine ventilation plan to control methane and coal dust, 12 of them coming last month alone. Not surprisingly, Blankenship views this as the cost of doing business. "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process," he said in a radio interview with West Virginia Metro News. "There are violations at every coal mine in America and UBB (Upper Big Branch) was a mine that had violations."
Congress will no doubt have hearings on this and we will learn just how "normal" Massey's operation of Upper Big Branch was. According to the New York Times, the company appealed at least thirty-seven of the fifty citations it received for serious safety violations in the last year.
Blankenship is also a poster child for why we need campaign-finance laws, and why recent moves by the U.S. Supreme Court to weaken them are so dangerous. Blankenship spent $3 million to help elect a justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court who then twice provided the key vote that set aside a $50 million jury verdict against Massey.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that judges must disqualify themselves in cases involving litigants from whom they received large campaign contributions. But the margin on that case was only 5-4. Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the dissenters, argued that the majority's decision "will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be." No, don't question those judges, even when their campaigns get 3 million bucks.
That particular case concerned fraud, not mine regulation. But there's a pattern here to which we should pay heed, and it involves power. Too often, regulations are discussed in the abstract as a "burden" on companies that expend substantial sums to resist them. Only after disasters such as this one do we remember that regulations exist for a reason, that their enforcement can, literally, be a matter of life and death. We will eventually learn what went wrong at Upper Big Branch and whether the safety violations were part of the problem. But then what will we do?
In the thirtieth anniversary edition of his classic book Everything in Its Path, the sociologist Kai Erikson reflects on the meaning of an earlier West Virginia mining country disaster that he wrote about so powerfully, the 1972 flood in Logan County's Buffalo Creek.
Pondering his research in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Erikson concludes that we live in "a world in which the most vulnerable of people end up taking the brunt of disasters resulting both from natural processes and from human activities." Perhaps the world will always be this way. But can't we bend it toward justice, at least a little bit?
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).