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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Massey, and the burden of guilt in a mine disaster

The first of several anticipated investigative reports into last year's disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, in which 29 miners were killed, came out today, and, not surprisingly, it laid the blame for the killing explosion at the feet of mine operator Massey Energy.

I've written about that tragedy before, and it's significant that the state investigative panel in part shares my take on it. From the conclusion:
Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.

The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.
The report also points out that there are many similar post-disaster reports from past tragedies gathering dust on regulators' shelves. Yet the conditions persist. The new report offers some recommendations, but the one that rings the loudest is to criminalize corporate behavior when workers are damaged by blatant disregard for laws and regulations. Maybe if corporate executives begin serving jail terms instead of foisting fines off on their shareholders, fewer lives would be lost to greed.

That isn't likely to happen, though, given the power of corporate cash in Washington. It is the relentless sense of corporate hubris that is most chilling here. And not just in buying the political process. The operators of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform had faith in their technology. The operators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station misplaced their faith in their technology, too. Massey went them all one better with a blatant disregard for the safety of its workers, a throwback to practices of a century ago, but that is about the only regard in which their hubris differs from those of their corporate peers.

Technology has done wonderful things for the quality of life around the world. But it has also, when misused or imbued with a near-religious sense of faith, been the cause of great calamity. From Bhopal to Upper Big Branch, the persistent undercurrent has been an appalling disregard for human safety. It's almost enough to make a Luddite out of you. Or, at the least, a harsh critic of a culture that exalts wealth over health, and corporate profits over personal safety.

What the hell kind of society have we let ourselves become?
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