Editorials

Too much regulation?

Gov. Steve Beshear and his challenger, Senate President David Williams, keep insisting the coal industry is overregulated.

Anyone tempted to believe them should read the first official report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia.

Twenty-nine men died because the most basic safety practices were routinely violated by the mine's owner, Massey Energy, a company seen as "too big to be regulated," and which also has a huge footprint in Kentucky.

"Most objective observers would find it unacceptable for workers to slog through neck-deep water or be subjected to constant tinkering with the ventilation system — their very lifeline in an underground mine. Practices such as these can only exist in a workplace where the deviant has become normal, and evidence suggests that a great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch mine," says a study commissioned after the disaster 13 months ago by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, who is now a U.S. senator.

The report, which was released last week (www.nttc.edu/ubb/), explains how a spark grew into a fireball that raged underground for two miles, propelled by accumulations of coal dust because Massey scrimped on something as cheap and basic as spreading crushed limestone, which keeps coal dust from exploding.

The supply of fresh air, which disperses explosive pockets of methane and other gases, was insufficient because, in the words of a U.S. mine safety official, Massey used "duct tape to fix things instead of engineering."

Internal safety monitoring was ineffective and fraudulent. Safety and fire suppression equipment was outdated, malfunctioning or disabled.

Meanwhile, workers underground were required every 30 minutes to report production numbers which were then transmitted to corporate headquarters.

"It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense," concluded the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel, chaired by former federal mine safety official J. Davitt McAteer.

Massey will change hands June 1. But the new owner, Alpha Resources, has already given Massey officials key jobs. Helping to run Alpha's safety program will be Massey chief operating officer Chris Adkins, who, along with former CEO Don Blankenship and 15 others, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid being questioned by federal investigators.

Against the known evidence, Massey continues to insist the mine was safe and the explosion caused by an unpredictable inundation of natural gas.

While the greed that motivated Massey is a familiar human trait, it's harder to understand how federal and West Virginia regulators allowed such reckless contempt for safety to become routine. The "politics of coal" and strained regulatory resources in the midst of a coal boom are among the report's explanations for West Virginia's lax enforcement.

The panel also delved into the culture and mythology of Massey. The company is known for providing jobs, giving Christmas gifts to poor children and other charitable and civic activities, the panel reports. "Massey is equally well known for causing incalculable damage to mountains, streams and air in the coalfields, creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities."

Beshear and Williams should also read the report. They should ask themselves if their rants against federal regulation and their defense of an industry that's hardly defenseless is also normalizing deviancy.

By pretending coal industry abuses are not real and attacking those who only ask the industry to follow the law, Beshear and Williams are endangering those who work in the mines. They are harming the many Kentuckians who live everyday with the effects of mining. And they risk the future with their eagerness to trade Kentucky's forest land and clean air and water for their own political protection from coal industry money.

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