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Behind the Oil Spill Disaster April 29, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The British Petroleum oil rig that blew up last week, killing 11 workers, is now spreading oil over a massive area in the Gulf of Mexico… “Drill Baby Drill”,one of the campaign slogans from McCain’s presidential campaign, is not looking quite so catchy. It’s too bad Obama caved into oil interests recently and authorized more off shore drilling.

This comes on the heels of the Massey Coal Mine explosion that killed 29 miners a few weeks ago.

What do these two events have in common? Both British Petroleum and Massey Coal were nonunion work sites.

As economist Teresa Ghilarducci writes:

In 2009, four years after a BP explosion in a Texas refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 170, the Occupational Safety and Health administration imposed the largest fine in its history—$87-million on British Petroleum. BP also paid billions in criminal charges and civil claims for the accident: $50-million in criminal fines for violating the Clean Air Act and over 4,000 claims from a $2.1-billion claims fund.

Why does this company still operate in this country? How many more workers does it have to kill?

In my economics classes, I teach the economics of health and safety. The two-minute version has the same conclusion as the two lecture version: If it is cheaper for the company to kill workers than it is to safeguard the workplace so they are not killed, workers will be killed. Unions and hefty government fines would raise the price of killing workers. Both Massey and BP work sites were nonunion. And the rate of unionization in this nation is at a all time low: 7.2 percent.

No other developed nation has a weaker labor movement than the United States and this country kills more workers per year than most.

Even these numbers are suspect. And the United States, unlike other rich countries, does not count fatalities due to occupational disease as a fatality. Seven countries impose safety obligations upon either directors or senior managers of companies—Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and Australia—while the United Sates imposes none.

The U.S. Department of Labor classifies on-the-job fatalities as misdemeanors, even if the employer was negligent by willfully failing to follow OSHA safety standards. The maximum civil penalty OSHA can levy for a safety violation is $70,000,  and the maximum prison sentence for a willful violation of a safety standard that leads to a worker’s death is six months. Six months.

Check out Fair Warning for direct commentary on corporate health and safety practices.

These workplace fatalities are not accidents of nature; they are caused by the Congress’s and the president’s failure to regulate and protect workers who attempt to unionize

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Mining Disaster April 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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The mining disaster last week that killed 29 workers is the worst U.S. mining disaster in 20 years.

As widely reported, the mine, near Charleston, WV has a history of safety violations, including 57 infractions just last month for (among other things) not properly ventilating the highly combustible methane, which allegedly caused this accident. Via the Washington Post

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has ordered the evacuation of miners from parts of the Upper Big Branch coal mine 64 times since the beginning of 2009 because of safety violations, but federal regulators said the mine did not show the “pattern of violation” that would have allowed them to take harsher measures.

The orders to withdraw miners from the site, where at least 25 workers died in an explosion this week, included one for “imminent danger” because miners had to wade through 48 inches of water in one section, records show.  […]

Last night, MSHA said that in the past year, the Upper Big Branch mine exceeded national averages in eleven citation categories and that for the most serious type of safety violation the mine had more than 11 times the national rate.

There were also problems with the mine’s four-mile-long ventilation system. Even though it won the approval of federal regulators last October, it was shown in a test in March to be circulating less than half the volume of air intended to keep levels of combustible coal dust and methane within a safe range.

Massey Mines has had problems with miner safety in the past.

In 2006 another Massey mine, Aracoma Alma No. 1, was recommended for shutdown by a government inspector, who was over-ruled. The subsequent fatal fire killed two miners and led to a guilty plea for 10 criminal mine safety violations, a $2.5 million fine. Massey also paid the federal government $20 million to settle charges of violating water pollution controls in 2008.

J. Davitt McAteer, the former MSHA Administrator, called the Massey conglomerate “certainly one of the worst in the industry” from a safety standpoint. CEO Blankenship, of course, denies McAteer’s and other workers and inspectors’ assessments. “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America.”

This utter disregard for mine safety is not surprising. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, is a real piece of work.

He donates huge amounts to conservative causes, has funded a good chunk of the Tea Party movement in West Virginia, famously spent over $3 million to get a friendly judge elected to the state Supreme Court, and  donated another $3 million in an attempt to fund a Republican takeover of the state legislature. Blankenship regularly engages in calling Democratic leaders “the crazies” and has said that any move to regulate pollution is the first step toward communism. Grist named Blankenship the “scariest polluter” in the country.

Although Massey appears to be directly responsible for the safety conditions of his mine, the government agency regulating mine safety is apparently without real enforcement powers and is largely ineffective. Because of influential people like Blankenship, the regulatory agencies are designed to be ineffective.

As Devilstower writes:

We will hear through the next weeks what we always hear in a situation like this. We’ll hear that the people of the Appalachians are hard-working people, tough people, people who take pride in their willingness to sacrifice to put food on the table for their families. And all that’s true.

It’s true, but all that doesn’t matter one damn bit. There is no honor in dying to save a company money. Nothing admirable in keeping a stiff upper lip so others can line their pockets. Anyone who trots out the idea that there’s something noble in allowing people to be abused, is part of that abuse. Painting a history of poverty, desperation and death as tradition is indulging in a romantic perversion. It’s poverty, desperation, and death. The right thing to do is fix it, not write another blasted song about it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com