Now that the last prayers have been offered up for sixteen men who lost their lives last month in West Virginia mines, I think it’s time we get down to the hard work of taking responsibility for their deaths. Because Appalachian coal is shipped across the country, almost anyone who uses electricity at home or work must acknowledge part of the responsibility. But some people bear more than others. It’s time to name names.
I’ll start close to home with my senator, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell. No other senator has so adamantly defended the right of corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to election campaigns, all in the name of free speech. And because coal companies give 91 percent of that money to Republicans, George W. Bush rewarded McConnell’s efforts by naming his wife, Elaine Chao, as Labor Secretary in 2001. Within days of Bush’s inauguration, Chao replaced Assistant Secretary of Labor Davitt McAteer, who oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), with Dave Lauriski, a man who had spent his professional life managing and lobbying for coal companies.
Several months before Lauriski’s appointment, the largest-ever environmental disaster east of the Mississippi occurred when the bottom of a huge coal impoundment pond gave way, pouring 300 million gallons of toxic coal slurry into the town of Inez, Kentucky (where, incidentally, LBJ had stood on a miner’s porch in 1964 to announce his War on Poverty). Jack Spadaro, superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy (which trains the health inspectors and support personnel at MSHA), discovered that Martin County Coal Corporation, the company mining above Inez, had been warned that the pond was unstable and would eventually break. But Martin had refused to comply with MSHA’s recommendations to reinforce the pond’s reservoir. Spadaro and a team of investigators recommended that Martin be cited for criminal negligence.
But there was one problem. Dave Lauriski was not Davitt McAteer. Lauriski (who during the investigation met repeatedly with Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, Martin’s parent company) refused to go along with Spadaro’s recommendation. Consequently, Spadaro refused to sign the final report of MSHA’s investigation. In retaliation, Lauriski had the lock on Spadaro’s office door changed, then tried to have him fired on trumped-up charges. When that didn’t work, he transferred Spadaro far from his West Virginia home to a Pittsburgh office.
Spadaro retired rather than accept the transfer, but Lauriski used the same tactic against other MSHA employees who had the temerity to do their job of protecting miners. On May 14, 2002, Lauriski met in his Washington office with Bob Murray, an influential coal operator, who complained that safety enforcement at his mines was too strict. Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News reports that Murray had personally donated $75,000 to Republican campaigns and that from 2000 to 2003 his political action committee contributed $648,000–96 percent of it going to Republicans. Within days of Murray’s meeting with Lauriski, two MSHA officials were transferred away from Murray’s mines.