Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Another way in which rural places are lawless? the case of coal

Robert F. Kennedy's op-ed in today's New York Times is headlined, "Coal, An Outlaw Enterprise," and  it makes the case for that proposition by focusing on two recent events.
  • The November 13 federal indictment of Donald L. Blankenship, former chief executive of the Massey Energy Company, on charges of widespread safety violations and deceiving federal inspectors. Massey owned the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, West Virginia when a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners there.  (Read more here and here).  In 2011, theMine Safety and Health Administration found that safety violations led to the explosion.  Yet, as Kennedy notes,  "[h]olding the head of a mining company responsible for such violations is an unprecedented move in the coal industry."  Blankenship faces up to 31 years' imprisonment if convicted.  Two of his subordinates, including the superintendent at Upper Big Branch, have already pleaded guilty.  Read more here.  And note that a federal district judge has put a gag order on the media in that case, an order that media outlets are challenging.  
  • The "scathing" Nov. 24 judgment by  Kentucky judge against a Frasure Creek Mining settlement involving over a thousand Clean Water Act violations and years of false data on pollution-disclosure reports.  The judge threw out what Kennedy calls a "sweetheart deal" between Frasure Creek and the Kentucky cabinet, writing "When one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it creates a regulatory climate in which the cabinet sends the message that cheating pays."  
Kennedy goes on to write:  
In nearly every stage of [coal's] production, many companies that profit from it routinely defy safety and environmental laws and standards designed to protect America’s public health, property and prosperity. In fact, Mr. Blankenship once conceded to me in a debate that mountaintop removal mining could probably not be conducted without committing violations. With a business model like that, one that essentially relies on defiance of the law, it is no wonder that some in the industry use their inordinate political and economic power to influence government officials and capture the regulating agencies.
On the regulatory capture point, read more here.  

This New York Times report on the Blankenship indictment notes that the event elicited "an usually sharp reaction" from Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia:  
As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed.  And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.
Another NY Times story by Trip Gabriel includes these anecdotes about Blankenship, who is described "as a mine boss out of Dickens" based on the 43-page grand jury indictment against him:
He demanded a report every 30 minutes — including by fax to his home on nights and weekends — tallying up coal production in a section of Upper Big Branch that was one of the most profitable, producing $600,000 of coal a day.
* * * 
Mr. Blankenship overrode managers who sought to strengthen roofs to prevent cave-ins or install ventilation systems to prevent explosions, ordering them to ignore “construction jobs” and instead to “run coal.” 
After a passageway flooded four feet deep and a federal inspector shut it down, fearing miners might drown, Mr. Blankenship ordered mining to continue, scolding the mine’s president for “letting M.S.H.A. run” the mine, referring to the Mine Safety and Health Administration
Among comments Blankenship made to the Upper Big Branch mine president when it did not meet the executive's expectations:
You have a kid to feed. Do your job.
I could Khrushchev you. Do you understand?
Needless to say, Blankenship was feared and most in West Virginia thought he would never be indicted.  Many still expect that he will never spend a day in jail.

On a related note, this story reported on law's lack of "teeth" for enforcing fines.  This story suggests that the U.S. Attorney in West Virginia is on a mission to bring the Blankenships of that state to justice--including those at the helm of Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the poisoning of Charleston's water supply in early 2014.  The story quotes Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston Gazette:
[T]he U.S. attorney in southern West Virginia, Booth Goodwin, is actually going out and trying to find people that he believes are responsible for chemical leaks and for mine explosions and bringing charges against the individual officers of those companies and trying to send those people to jail. And that's really a remarkable turn of events here in the state where these industries have really run things for so long.
All of this has me thinking about coal as "outlaw" in relation to my work on the relative lawlessness of rural places--of law's struggle to effectively regulate the remote, the sparsely populated, that lacking a built environment.  Why is Big Coal lawless?  Is rural spatiality to blame, as I posited here in relation to other rural contexts?  or is government more the culprit by turning a blind eye, by effectively ceding rurality--and Appalachia, in particular--to private interests?  After all, space only "tames" law to the extent law/the state fails to allocate sufficient resources to govern and regulate that space/those spaces.  Does Appalachia matter to federal decision makers?  Do Appalachians matter?  

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