A TEST FOR LABOR: As The Nation goes to press, the death toll of a devastating explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia has reached twenty-five. The blast was so severe that many of the dead have yet to be identified, and four miners remain unaccounted for. The grief in this small coal-mining community south of Charleston is likely compounded by the very real possibility that the accident was preventable.
In March alone the mine, a nonunion facility owned by Massey Energy, was cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for fifty-three safety violations. For example, new communications equipment that would enable rescuers to pinpoint the location of potential survivors, required by legislation passed in the wake of the 2006 Sago disaster, was only "partially installed." That law also stiffened penalties, to which mine operators responded with an avalanche of appeals, the subject of a February House Labor Committee hearing, where MSHA’s new head, Joe Main, testified that 82,000 safety violations have piled up, awaiting remedy. Committee chair George Miller speculated at the time, "Perhaps this process is protecting those with the worst records."
Massey may have just proved Miller right: of nearly $900,000 in MSHA fines issued last year at Upper Big Branch–hundreds of them for safety violations considered "significant and substantial"–Massey has contested more than 80 percent. As long as those fines are being challenged, points out Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, MSHA is blocked from taking further action, such as putting Massey’s mine on a list of pattern offenders, which would trigger rigorous intervention.
Despite this atrocious foot-dragging, Massey CEO Don Blankenship had the gall to claim to a West Virginia radio station that neither MSHA nor state regulators "would have allowed the mine to operate if it were thought to be unsafe." In December 2008 Massey was slapped with the largest coal- mining safety fines in history, totaling $4.2 million, and the company pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the deaths of two miners at another West Virginia mine in 2006. In filing suit against Massey, the widows of those miners uncovered a 2005 memo that revealed Blankenship’s open hostility to safety measures. "If any of you have been asked by your…engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal," the memo to mine supervisors read, "you need to ignore them and run coal."
The West Virginia explosion, the deadliest mining disaster since 1984, is the first major test for Obama’s new Labor Department. Secretary Hilda Solis has promised to investigate and "take action." But that means she and Main will either have to find a way to hold reckless operators like Massey accountable in the face of a crippling appeals process–or push Congress to pass a new mining bill that will close the lethal loopholes. ESTHER KAPLAN
COLLATERAL MURDER COVER-UP? Peace Action’s Kevin Martin reminds us, "The fall of Baghdad in early April 2003 is widely held by Iraqis to mark the beginning of the US occupation of Iraq. Seven years later, we have fulfilled very few of the promises we made in the months leading up to war, but we have brought death, destruction and displacement." Unfortunately, with major media largely withdrawn from Iraq–even if US troops and contractors are not–the true picture of the occupation is seldom shown. Thanks to WikiLeaks.org, however, we’ve got a better sense of the high cost of empire.
WikiLeaks, a three-year-old new-media project that operates off a Swedish-hosted website (in Sweden, journalists cannot be forced to reveal sources), publishes and comments on leaked documents revealing government and corporate misconduct. Having withstood corporate and government pressures, including gag orders, the site has gained a reputation as a news outlet that protects sources and gets stories out. And WikiLeaks got a big one when a source from within the US military anonymously leaked an encrypted video of one of the most controversial incidents to take place during the occupation of Iraq. The site’s small editorial staff used Twitter to solicit decryption help from computer specialists, verified what it had and created a special collateralmurder.com website to circulate the video.
What more than 2 million visitors to the site in its first two days saw was a 2007 video showing US helicopter pilots firing on unarmed civilians, including a Reuters photographer and his driver. Surveying the dead bodies below, one of the pilots exclaims, "Nice!" At the time of the incident, a military spokesman claimed the pilots were "clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force." But as the Committee to Protect Journalists says, "The video raises questions about the actions of US military forces and the thoroughness and transparency of the investigation that followed." Congress needs to ask those questions and demand answers from the Pentagon–and Bush White House aides–about who knew what, when and whether there was a cover-up of killings that do not appear to have been either "nice" or justified. JOHN NICHOLS
SIMON & SIMON: Illinois lieutenant governors have a way of becoming Illinois governors. The current governor, Democrat Pat Quinn, moved up from the state’s number-two job after Rod Blagojevich was impeached. Blagojevich is still under investigation, but his predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is in federal prison; and Ryan was the third Illinois governor since 1968 to be convicted of white-collar crimes.
No one expects Quinn, a clean-government advocate, to get in trouble. But it’s reassuring that he has picked as his running mate a savvy reformer who happens to be the heir to one of the state’s (and nation’s) most honorable political names. Sheila Simon, a law professor and veteran local elected official in southern Illinois, learned about politics campaigning for her dad, the late Senator Paul Simon. And she retains his liberal values (she’s an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage, education investments and fair taxation) and faith in the value of public service. In a season of government-bashing and compromise–not just by "party of no" Republicans but by "party of should know better" Democrats–Simon says, "I don’t believe that government is the enemy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I come from a tradition of understanding that government can serve the people." JOHN NICHOLS