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Rachel Maddow: Taking The Human Cost Out Of The Cost Of Mining Coal

Rachel Maddow recounts the horrid safety record of Massey Energy and how the CEO of Massey Energy spent over $3 million to get his choice of Supreme C
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Rachel Maddow recounts the horrid safety record of Massey Energy and how the CEO of Massey Energy spent over $3 million to get his choice of Supreme Court Justice elected in West Virginia, who as Rachel Maddow noted, then ruled in Blankenship's favor for his company and their safety violations, surprise, surprise.

Rachel talked to Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland about the core of the problems with the coal mining industry which is more worried about profit than the worker's lives. As Biggers pointed out, virtually all of the major accidents in the coal industry have taken place in non-union mines, and he pointed out that Massey Industry is not only one of the worst companies for their safety record, but also for "breaking up the unions in the 1980's and 1990's" and added this about what kind of difference unions make when it comes to mining safety.

BIGGERS: You know, that‘s a wonderful point to make. Virtually, all the major accidents and disasters have taken place in non-union mines. And really, Massey Energy is infamous not only for their state of violations both with underground and but also surface mining, but the fact that they really were part and parcel of being aggressive about breaking up the unions in the 1980s and the 1990s. And this is ultimately what we‘re paying for.

You know, in the old days, Rachel, or in a union mine, you had union fire bosses who came in, who pointed out the violations. And it was a brotherhood to really make sure that those violations were corrected and you have a safer mine, because those were members of the union that were in there.

Today, we have less than 20 percent of our coal miners, estimated, who actually are with the United Mine Workers or any sort of union. And ultimately now, we‘re paying the price. You know, that‘s the problem. The coal companies and their representatives who do any kind of inspections outside of federal inspectors, they see regulations as just obstacles to production. They don‘t realize that regulations are about human lives. It‘s about protecting American citizens and the coal miners.

Full transcript via MSNBC below the fold.

MADDOW: We now know that 25 miners have died in Montcoal, West Virginia. Another four are still missing, in what‘s now officially the worst mine disaster in more than two decades in this country. The explosion at the Upper Big Branch South mine yesterday after is still being investigated. But experts believe it was caused by a buildup of methane gas. That same cause also played a role in the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 West Virginia miners in 2006.

Rescuers were ordered out of the Big Branch Mine early this morning when methane levels became dangerously high again. According to West Virginia‘s governor, Joe Manchin, rescue workers had searched beyond the point at which they were putting their own lives in danger when they were finally pulled out.

Before the search effort can resume, crews must drill bore holes into the mine to try to vent out this gas. It‘s expected to take until at least tomorrow evening. So, the search for the four miners who remain unaccounted for will not proceed for at least another day.

Governor Manchin giving updates today, alongside state and federal officials. He promised to conduct a full investigation into what caused the explosion and to hold a public hearing.

Now, the company that owns the Upper Big Branch South mine where yesterday‘s explosion took place is a company called Massey Energy. Massey Energy, one of the top five coal producers in the country.

“The Associated Press” describes Massey‘s safety record as spotty. “The Washington Post” today reports that “Massey has been frequently cited for safety violations, including 50 citations at the Upper Big Branch mine in March alone.”

There have been three fatalities at this one mine over the past 12 years. In seven of the last 10 years, according to the “A.P.,” its nonfatal injury rate has been worse than the national average for similar operations.

Researchers at “Think Progress” have also been compiling safety information on the Upper Big Branch mine. They found today that the mine has been cited for more than 3,000 safety violations since 1995. Now, the CEO of Massey Energy is a man named Don Blankenship. Mr. Blankenship is on the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

He‘s very politically active. In West Virginia, he spent more than $3 million on ads to defeat a Supreme Court justice, a state Supreme Court justice who he expected would rule against him in a $50 million court case. The new judge—after the guy who Blankenship wanted out was defeated—the new judge, shockingly, became the deciding vote in the ruling in Mr. Blankenship‘s favor in that case. In November of 2008, apparently in response to a series of articles about mountain top removal mining and a fatal fire in one of the company‘s mines and the “buying the judge” controversy, Mr. Blankenship lashed out at the newspaper that was covering him, the “Charleston Gazette.”

He said at the time, quote, “It is as great a pleasure for me to be criticized by the communists and the atheists of the ‘Charleston Gazette‘ as to be applauded by my best friends. Because I know they are wrong.

People are cowering away from being criticized by people that are our enemies. Would we be upset if Osama bin Laden was critical of us?” “Charleston Gazette,” Osama bin Laden. Here‘s what happened in April 2008 when ABC News tried to ask Mr. Blankenship about the “buy a judge” controversy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DON BLANKENSHIP, MASSEY ENERGY CEO: If you‘re going to start taking pictures of me, you‘re liable to get shot.

REPORTER: Hi. How are you doing, Mr. Blankenship? ABC News. Hey, sir, don‘t touch my camera.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: He said at the beginning there, in case you missed it, “If you‘re going to start taking pictures of me, you‘re liable to get shot.” That‘s the head of Massey Energy, one of the largest coal producers in the country. Coal mining is the industry that lost 12 workers at Sago Mine in 2006, that lost five that same year in Millsboro, Kentucky, that lost another six at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah in 2001, that lost 13 miners in Brookwood, Alabama, in 2001.

Coal mining is a dangerous industry by its very nature, but there are ways to make it less dangerous, less deadly. A top official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said today, “All explosions are preventable.” Essentially, the idea being, that mining is dangerous, but mining accidents like the one that happened yesterday in Montcoal are preventable—if companies that run these mines are forced to prevent them. Clearly, by their track record, the mine companies are not going to do this on their own, which means they are going to have to be forced to. In fact, they will probably fight as hard as they can to not do what regulators tell them to do because, of course, it will make them less profitable.

But you know what? Digging coal out of the ground is expensive and there is the possibility that we ought to pay for that expense in something other than the lives of the people who do the mining. Joining us now is Jeff Biggers, author of the book “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.”

Mr. Biggers, thank you very much for coming on the show. It‘s nice to see you.

JEFF BIGGERS, AUTHOR, “RECKONING AT EAGLE CREEK”: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MADDOW: There‘s been a lot of reporting today on this particular mine owned by Massey Energy. It‘s racked up with what seems like a lot of safety violations over the years. Can you put Massey‘s safety record in perspective for us? How bad are their violations considering the industry as a whole?

BIGGERS: You know, Massey not only had 500 violations in the last year, but 10 percent of those violations are what we call unwarrantable failure violations, which means serious life-and-death issues. You know, at the same time, we really have to point out the issue of putting production over safety, Rachel, because at the same time, they had an increase of 500 violations, they tripled their coal production. And this is really part of the coal industry and a large part of the coal industry. I don‘t want to say all of the coal industry. But for the most part, the idea that you can continue to operate a coal mine in a continual state of violation and denial.

MADDOW: If these coal mine disasters are preventable, why do they keep happening? Is—are the fines not tough enough? Are the regulations not tight enough? Are the regulations not being enforced properly? Are they defying findings against them? What‘s the problem?

BIGGERS: That‘s a great question. I mean, essentially, as a historian, what I have found is we passed a century of regulated manslaughter. Over 104,000 Americans have died in our coal mines and thousands upon thousands of coal miners still die from black lung disease. Every day, we lose three coal miners to black lung disease. Think about it. In 2010, three coal miners daily die from black lung disease. So, these regulations, what‘s happening? You know, for the most part, it‘s more profitable for a coal company to be slapped on the wrist and pay fines, even fines up to $1 million than to halt their production.

And I think that‘s ultimately what we‘re having to come to grips with is, does this regulatory system work? Do we need to change it? Do we need to have more visits, for example, instead of quarterly visits, which we‘ve been stuck on since 1969? Perhaps we have to have six to eight visits and inspections per year. There are many ways to tackle this. But I think, more importantly, it‘s a state of mind, that a crisis is not a crisis in this coal industry until we have these horrific disasters.

MADDOW: One of the—one of the sort of ongoing stories about mining in this country, coal mining in particular, but mining in general,and the struggle of powerful mine owners like Don Blankenship at Massey Energy and others who‘ve been so willing to throw their weight around in the political arena. The other side of that story has been the struggle of mine workers unions to try to not only get access to workers, to organize workers who work in these mines, but also to try to play a role in safety issues. Right now, in 2010, this particular mine not a union mine. Generally speaking, does the presence of unions make mines any safer?

BIGGERS: You know, that‘s a wonderful point to make. Virtually, all the major accidents and disasters have taken place in non-union mines. And really, Massey Energy is infamous not only for their state of violations both with underground and but also surface mining, but the fact that they really were part and parcel of being aggressive about breaking up the unions in the 1980s and the 1990s. And this is ultimately what we‘re paying for.

You know, in the old days, Rachel, or in a union mine, you had union fire bosses who came in, who pointed out the violations. And it was a brotherhood to really make sure that those violations were corrected and you have a safer mine, because those were members of the union that were in there.

Today, we have less than 20 percent of our coal miners, estimated, who actually are with the United Mine Workers or any sort of union. And ultimately now, we‘re paying the price. You know, that‘s the problem. The coal companies and their representatives who do any kind of inspections outside of federal inspectors, they see regulations as just obstacles to production. They don‘t realize that regulations are about human lives. It‘s about protecting American citizens and the coal miners.

MADDOW: Jeff Biggers, author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland”—Mr. Biggers, thanks very much for joining us tonight. Thanks for being here.

BIGGERS: Thanks for having me.

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