Tag Archives: Upper Big Branch

Conspiracy Charges for Superintendent of Upper Big Branch

Federal prosecutors have filed charges against Gary May, the former superintendent of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. More details at NPR.

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Implicit Blame

For the past six months or so my dissertation work has kept me from keeping up with any mining or mining safety news. Nevertheless, I do my best to watch the headlines. The latest headline out of West Virginia’s legislative response to the Upper Big Branch Disaster in 2010 has me boggled. Dave Jamieson at Huffington Post has what looks to be a good overview of the situation. The legislation in question is pushing for mandatory drug testing. This is in spite of the fact that drug usage played no role in the disaster. I also want to emphasize that there seems to be no evidence of any drug usage by any of the victims of the disaster.

More than likely there are any number of influences from the industry on this legislation. That said, I have to go even further than Celeste Monforton, the public health expert Jamieson quotes in his article. Monforton describes the drug testing discussion as a distraction. I think it’s worse than that. There’s an implicit cast of blame that occurs with this rhetoric when it’s attached to legislation specifically labeled as a response to Upper Big Branch. It becomes a red herring that suggests the men who died were somehow responsible for the fate that befell them. Whatever the merits of drug testing in the mining industry, the legislative battle over it has implicitly created a fallacious discourse about Upper Big Branch that needs to be cut off before it can get started.

Natural Disasters, Unnatural People?

A few stories regarding the coal industry have caught my eye and, despite my being a few weeks late to the party, I think each deserves more attention:

Investigators apparently have evidence that Massey Energy kept fake safety records for Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. This comes from the Mine Safety and Health Administration who showed the records to families of the killed miners. Regarding the explosion, the MSHA findings point towards a small methane explosion caused by a spark from a cutting head. That explosion grew exponentially thanks to the unsafe build up of coal dust in the mine. This, of course, goes against Massey’s claim that the explosion was a natural disaster rather than something preventable through safety measures.

It stands to reason that Massey would make this claim. It is, after all, in their interest. Natural disasters through the very label become something unpreventable. They are a fact of life and the loss of life through them in turn becomes inevitable. Certainly this isn’t a new idea and I’m not the first to point out this tactic. Nevertheless, it’s important to state exactly what this rhetoric does in regards to the safety of miners and to the responsibility of Massey and the coal industry as a whole. It is, frankly, the largest cop out possible. Nothing about coal mining is “natural.” You’re digging tunnels deep into mountains to retrieve minerals to burn to produce energy. It is a thoroughly industrialized process and an intervention (for better or worse – though obviously I lean towards worse) of human beings into incredibly dangerous territory. To say that the dangers are natural then suggests that they are unpreventable, exactly what the MSHA’s findings refute.

There’s another side of this tactic and it’s one that the mining industry (or in this case a law firm representing it) has deployed recently as well. (As first reported here and picked up by Mother Jones here) In response to a recent study showing the increased chance of birth defects among populations living near mountaintop removal operations the law firm of Crowell & Moring has stated that the study did not take into account consanguinity. If you’re like me and aren’t familiar with the term consanguinity the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr.  has done us the favor of finding out: Consanguinity refers to the level of shared ancestry. In other words, the level of inbreeding.

Ward’s post about this has a excellent explanation of Crowell & Moring’s use of the term and it’s well worth a read in its entirety. Once again I want to focus on the rhetoric. There’s a clear insinuation pulling on an old and much refuted stereotype that the residents of the Appalachian coal fields are inbreeding. Hence they become “unnatural” in their behavior and the cause for their own problems. As such, if we accept this line of reasoning, the people suffering birth defects in this region are to be the subject of our collective scorn rather than MTR. This tactic pulls on an old and much refuted stereotype in an underhanded effort to refute a study pointing towards the detrimental effects of the coal industry on the region and its inhabitants.

Again, not a new tactic. Still, it’s imperative to point out these tactics whenever they crop up. The rhetoric is simply too powerful to let slip by unchallenged. They must be called out as the insidious and deceitful tactics that they are.

Indictment in Upper Big Branch Disaster Investigation

Hughie Elbert Stover has been arrested and charged for obstructing the investigation of the 2010 disaster at Upper Big Branch.

The whole story: AP News report via Huffington Post.

MSHA Splits District Including Upper Big Branch

NPR reports on the upcoming split of the Mine Safety and Health Administration district that includes the Upper Big Branch Mine that was the site of an explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. The split will come as a means to help safety enforcement by decreasing the relative size being administered. The split will happen later this year, but NPR raises some important questions about the delay of this action until 2011.

Upper Big Branch Mine Blast News Coverage 4/9

News Coverage for Upper Big Branch Mine Blast 4/8

I’m continuing to collect news and internet coverage of the Upper Big Branch Mine Blast.

New York Times coverage for the morning of 4/8.

The New York Times takes a look at the complicated background and local loyalties surrounding Massey Energy Co. and its CEO Don Blankenship.

CNN gives some background into one of the blast’s victims, Joshua Napper.

Upper Big Branch Mine Blast News Coverage

I’m continuing to collect news and internet coverage of the mining tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal West Virginia.  Due to time constraints I’m playing catch up on some of these posts and they rightfully belong in yesterday’s post.  I’ll try to distinguish these in my links.

New York Times story for 4/7.

A background story about mine safety regulation and Massey Energy Co. Ceo Don Blankenship.

Some posts from the blog Daily Kos about mining and Blankenship:

On safety violations at Massey Energy Co. mines.

About air circulation and construction in mines and the damning nature of memos from Blankenship.

Some statistics about mine safety and unions.

CNN reports on improving air quality in the mine and the likelihood of rescue operations recommencing.