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Dangerous Coal, Neglected Lives

By Mary Shaw

12 April, 2010

Last week, 29 workers died as a result of an explosion at a West Virginia coal mine. The mine was owned by Massey Energy.

Apparently, Massey CEO Don Blankenship has a history of putting profits over worker safety by fighting against any kind of regulation, accountability, or labor rights, as Bloomberg News reports:

"Don Blankenship, chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co., has fought with mine regulators, unions, residents of his town and even his personal maid.

"His company regularly appeals fines for safety infractions. He has personally gone into mines to persuade workers to abandon union organizing efforts. Massey is fighting lawsuits that claim it contaminated groundwater in Blankenship’s town. A maid supplied by a company she claimed was a Massey unit was forced to fight all the way to West Virginia's highest court to collect unemployment benefits."

Not exactly a likely candidate for Boss of the Year, and certainly not the kind of guy I'd want to work for. But in Appalachian coal country, where I grew up, working-class folks don't have a lot of options, especially in today's economy.

I remember, decades ago when I was a child, seeing the men come home from the coal mines at the end of the day covered in so much black coal dust that the whites of their eyes seemed to shine in contrast. There was nothing to keep that dust out of their throats, lungs, or lunchboxes.

But that's just one of the dangers that coal miners face each day at work. As the tragic news from West Virginia brought to light, the minors there were also exposed to high levels of methane, which may have played a part in the explosion that killed the 29 miners last week.

Not only is coal mining hazardous to the workers, it is also deadly to the planet and the population at large. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of carbon dioxide pollution, producing 2.5 billion tons every year. And the non-profit environmental group Earthjustice reports that coal ash, which can be highly toxic, frequently contaminates the groundwater at disposal sites, thereby increasing cancer risks.

So, all things considered, is there really any good reason not to move money, people, and other valuable resources away from coal and other outdated fossil fuels and invest instead in the development of clean, renewal energy?

Oh, yeah: It would be inconvenient for the CEOs like Blankenship, who care more about profits than people.

And, thanks to a government that continues to allow that sort of thing, and thanks to a Supreme Court that gave corporations like Massey the unlimited right to buy and sell elected officials from Congressmen to judges, Blankenship and his ilk will likely continue to call the shots for a very long time to come.

And the workers will continue to be seen as little more than disposable tools.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com




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