Instead, we’re going to talk about the complete and utter failure of safety regulations to protect West Virginia miners, especially in the context of relentless, unfounded, outrageous attacks on West Virginia’s judges and juries, which have likely further endangered workers in this beautiful state.
In 2006, after the Sago mine disaster, Center for Justice & Democracy wrote:
Agencies such as the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) exist to regulate and enforce worker safety. But as we unfortunately know, this doesn’t always work. Part of the problem is that agencies have become political and tied in with industry – thus, less effective. During the first term of the Bush administration, the MSHA rescinded more than a half-dozen safety proposals under the leadership of David Lauriski, a former industry lobbyist. There were also major cutbacks in agency budgets and the number of inspectors, reducing enforcement. Another problem is that safety violation fines are often miniscule compared to company profits and can easily be written off as a “cost of business” – more economical than improving the safety conditions.
With regulatory oversight of mining and other industries so weakened, the right to bring reckless corporations to court is more precious than ever. There are countless examples of corporations improving safety conditions and products because of lawsuits brought by injured people. A typical example occurred in 2001 in Wyoming County, West Virginia when a worker was killed at a U.S. Steel Mining Co. coal processing facility due to faulty scaffolding equipment. As a result of the lawsuit, the dangerous equipment was removed. In another 2003 West Virginia case, a jury found that a coal processing facility run by the Elk Run Coal Co., a Massey Energy subsidiary, failed to protect the community against air pollution. As a result of a lawsuit brought by residents of the town of Sylvester who had been harmed by escaping coal dust, the court enforced a dust control plan on the company.
The civil justice system is the only reliable means of deterring dangerous corporate behavior. A negligible fine doesn’t send the same message as a substantial verdict against a reckless company. Thus, it may come as no surprise that corporate lobbyists, having already made tremendous strides in weakening regulatory safety standards, are putting enormous resources into weakening our courts and attacking judges and juries – and they’re winning. West Virginia, in fact, was recently declared a so-called “judicial hellhole” by the American Tort Reform Association, a group funded by polluters, tobacco companies, the insurance industry, and other industries. The report’s purpose was to attack judges and juries who have held companies accountable for harming or killing innocent citizens.
A few updates since this was written:
- David Lauriski was replaced by Richard Stickler, who was a mining company executive at a Massey subsidiary. After Stickler’s nomination was returned to the White House twice due to lack of Senate support for being too cozy with the industry, President Bush named him MSHA head anyway while the Senate was in recess! Joe Main was appointed by President Obama to run MSHA now - a good guy, but he was just confirmed in October (and there is clearly much damage to repair).
- MSHA did hire more inspectors in 2007 and 2008, but a new government audit released just days ago says the agency has poorly retrained safety inspectors in recent years with more than half not attending retraining courses. Moreover, “The agency failed to track and ensure completion of retraining courses and did not punish inspectors who failed to attend courses."
- Rich special interest groups from outside the state continue to attack West Virginia’s judges, juries and the state's business climate without any basis (most recently by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last month).
West Virginia is the second poorest state in the nation. Can they please catch a break?