Workplace Safety Laws Take Centerstage in Presidential Race

by | Aug 8, 2016

mine workerWorkplace safety rules in the coal mining sector are coming up for air and are taking centerstage in the presidential race. The issue comes on the heels of the conviction and the imprisonment of a former coal mining boss accused of violating those laws. And it comes in the midst of major coal mining job losses, which is the culmination of a fierce competition for cleaner fuels, tougher federal regulations and thinning coal seams.

At the epicenter of the discussion is the federal prosecution of Don Blankenship, who had been the chief executive of Massey Energy and who was sentenced in April to a year in prison — all tied to an underground mine explosion that killed 29 people in April 2010. Former Secretary of State Hillary is weighing in, saying that the penalty does not fit the crime and that she would work with Congress to update workplace safety laws that would enhance compliance.

“After 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch Mine, our worst mining disaster in 40 years, prosecutors charged and convicted (Blankenship) for conspiracy to violate the Mine Safety and Health Act,” Clinton writes, in her position paper. “Blankenship received only one year in jail, however, because violations of the (act) are only misdemeanor charges.”

The overarching premise of Clinton’s view is that while environmental and workplace safety violations can happen in any town across America, they are more likely to occur in the poorest areas least able to defend themselves. The concerns are especially acute in southern West Virginia, which has been heavily dependent on coal and the wealth that it has created. Now, though, the region is ravaged with poverty and drugs, leaving citizens there desperate for any economic opportunity.

Without question, everyone abhors the deaths of 29 in an underground explosion. But Blankenship and his defense team have maintained that the tragedy was an accident caused by natural circumstances, not by a willful attempt to sidestep safety laws. Just the opposite, they add: he had written several memos stressing the need for better compliance. 

The Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that the coal industry is suffering because of the undue burdens put upon it by by federal regulations that unfairly clamp down on carbon releases, among other emissions regulated under the Clean Air Act of 1990. His advocates have said that those rules single out coal because the only technology that would make coal acceptable under those conditions is carbon capture and burial — and it is not yet commercialized or cost effective.

“I have friends that own the mines. I mean, they can’t live, they can’t eat,” said Trump, as reported by E&E. “The restrictions, environmentally, are so unbelievable, where inspectors come two and three times a day, and they can’t afford it any longer … We make these environmental deals where we have to adhere here immediately and China doesn’t kick in for 25 years. Great. Great negotiating, fellas.”

But the mine workers, which are certainly on the side of the coal companies when it comes to environmental laws, say that Trump is conflating the federal environmental rules cover carbon with the work place safety laws that protect miners from serious accidents. The two are mutually exclusive, they say. Whose side is Mr. Trump on?

“The notion of reducing mine inspections because coal operators are going hungry is preposterous,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, in a story by SNL Energy. “It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the difference decades of progress in mine health and safety has made for miners. The most precious thing to come out of a coal mine every day isn’t the coal, it’s the coal miner. Reducing safety inspections puts miners at greater risk, plain and simple.”

In an earlier talk with this writer, Murray Energy Chief Executive Robert Murray said he remains especially critical of the Obama administration, which he says is responsible for the bankruptcies of dozens of coal companies and thousands of coal mining job losses. He refers to global warming as “global goofiness.”

He has also labeled the prosecution of Don Blankenship as “political,” saying that if authorities spend enough time and money pursuing any business leader, they could find something. “No question: The Blankenship case has hurt the coal industry,” he says. “But this case does not represent the coal industry or how it does business.”

The families of the fallen miners don’t think the prosecution of the former coal mining boss was political. They say it has been necessary, although they are generally displeased with the ultimate misdemeanor verdict and the one-year prison sentence. They told this reporter after the Blankenship sentencing in April of this year that Congress needs to stiffen the penalties for workplace safety crimes; Blankenship reported a month later, in May. 

But measures to achieve such standards have long languished on Capitol Hill. For their part, business leaders don’t want to wind up in jail for workplace safety violations that they had either tried to address or could not have foreseen. Workers, though, want reasonable assurances that corporate leaders have taken all steps to ensure that they are able to return safely to their families.

On this one, Mrs. Clinton would be appear to be the conspicuous choice among mine workers, favoring revised work place laws and criticizing Mr. Blankenship’s treatment of workers. But odds are she won’t get their votes, as the men and women in the coal communities have related to Mr. Trump and have vowed their support to him. As to whether he would buck business and push for more aggressive work place safety laws, though, remains unknown.

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