Is the Upper Big Branch Mining Tragedy the US’s Westray?

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On April 5, 2010, an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine owned by Massey Energy killed 29 workers. An independent team released its report on the disaster on May 19, 2011, concluding that the tragedy could have been prevented if Massey had simply observed minimal safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine.

According to the New York Times, in what is reportedly the largest settlement ever in a government investigation of a mine disaster, Alpha Natural Resources has recently agreed to pay $209 million in restitution and civil and criminal penalties for the role Massey, its subsidiary, played in the incident.

The settlement requires Alpha to spend $80 million over the next two years on improvements including:

  • Installation of digital monitoring systems in its underground mines to continuously monitor compliance with ventilation requirements and make sure mines are free of methane gas
  • Implementation of a plan to ensure each underground mine has the personnel and resources necessary to meet all legal requirements on incombustible material and accumulations of coal dust and loose coal
  • Purchase and use of state-of-the-art equipment to monitor mines for explosive concentrations of coal dust, next-generation rock dusting equipment and cutting-edge oxygen cascading systems to help miners make their way to safety if a serious incident occurs
  • Construction of a state-of-the-art training facility and implementation of a full training curriculum.

The deal also includes $46.5 million for the families of the those who died and were injured in the blast. But the families want the people who ran Massey and knowingly put their relatives in danger to be criminally prosecuted.

Federal prosecutors say they’re trying to do that and are pursuing cases against a number of individuals involved in the explosion. So far, only the mine’s security chief at the time of the blast, Hughie Stover, is facing criminal charges. However, the Times reports that industry observers warn that because of weak mining safety laws, prosecutors will have a hard time pursuing criminal convictions of Massey executives.

Comparisons to Westray

Does any of this sound familiar, Canadians? It should because it brings to mind the Westray tragedy and the government’s inability to secure criminal negligence convictions against company executives for that mining disaster.

As a result of Westray, the Canadian Criminal Code was amended by Bill C-45 to make it easier to go after company big wigs for criminal negligence in serious workplace safety incidents. It took years to get Bill C-45 passed. And since it became law about six years ago, it’s only been used against company executives once in a case that’s still pending in Ontario.

In the US, efforts to change the mining law were thwarted. A bill to change the mine act to “close gaping loopholes that allow some mine operators to put their miners at needless risk” didn’t make it out of the House at the end of the last session of Congress, because of what a Democratic staff member on the Education and Workforce Committee described as an intense lobbying effort by the coal industry.

It appears that in both Canada and the US, going after corporate executives for failing to protect their workers is an uphill battle.

What do you think has to happen for politicians and government officials to get the message that senior managers of companies can’t be allowed to play fast and loose when it comes to compliance with workplace safety laws and that wilful disregard of worker safety must be punished?

Tell us in the comments section below and be entered to win a $100 Chapters gift card.