You are hereHuffington Post: An Enduring Memorial for Slaughtered Miners: Criminal Liability for Reckless Owners

Huffington Post: An Enduring Memorial for Slaughtered Miners: Criminal Liability for Reckless Owners

April 16, 2010- The catastrophe at Upper Big Branch that killed 29 miners evokes the disaster at Westray that killed 26 almost exactly 18 years earlier.

As at Upper Big Branch, a coal dust and methane explosion ripped through the Westray mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia early in the morning. As at Upper Big Branch, rescuers discovered bodies, but toxic air forced them out before they could account for all missing miners. After five days, dangerous conditions permanently ended the search for the missing 11 at Westray. They're entombed in the hazardous workplace that took their lives, a mine like Upper Big Branch that had been cited for dust and methane violations.

Nova Scotia erected a memorial over the spot where the bodies of the 11 are believed to be, with plaques bearing the names of the miners killed. West Virginia no doubt will commemorate those killed at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch.

But Canada did something more. It criminalized corporate disregard for worker safety. It's called the Westray Law.

America needs its own such statute - an Upper Big Branch Law - holding corporate managers and directors criminally accountable for ditching safety for dollars.

Fines and lawsuit settlements have proved ineffective in forcing the likes of Massey to reform. For example, In December of 2008, Massey paid $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties because it had removed ventilation controls in its Aracoma mine, contributing to the deaths of two miners there on Jan. 19, 2006. To put the effect of that punishment in perspective, in that same year Massey paid its CEO, Don Blankenship, a salary more than twice that amount -- $11.2 million.

In the 12 months after the $4.2 million admonishment, Massey racked up twice as many violations at Upper Big Branch as it had in 2008. The violations included explosive coal dust and methane build-ups, and they were so serious that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) designated Upper Big Branch in August of 2009 as a mine requiring increased scrutiny by inspectors. But it escaped those extra examinations because it appealed so many of its citations, according to U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California congressman who has worked for years to improve mine safety.

Just three days before the Upper Big Branch catastrophe, an explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash. killed six workers and severely burned a seventh. Like Massey, Tesoro had paid fines that proved ineffective in creating safe working conditions. Last year, Tesoro shelled out $12,500 for violations that included the most serious transgressions -- those with the potential to cause serious injury or death.



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