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Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 8, 2010, 10:48 am

‘Unwarrantable Failure’: Deadly Mines in China and America

BY Michelle Chen

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A mailbox near the entrance to the Upper Big Branch coal mine owned by Massey Energy Company in Montcoal, West Va., April 6, 2010, one day after an explosion killed 25 miners. The accident was the worst in the United States in decades.   (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

By Michelle Chen

At a time when U.S.-China trade relations are as tense as ever, the twin tragedies in the mining industry in both countries were a stunning symbol of the shared struggles of Chinese and American labor. As a bulwark of the fossil-fuel-based economy, mining remains one of the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs in both developed and “emerging” economies.

But for a moment last week, China's mining tragedy—the sudden flooding of the Wangjialing mine in Shanxi Province—turned out to have a happier ending than the blast in the Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. A pang of envy might have shot through the hearts of the workers' families in West Virginia when they heard the news that scores of Chinese miners, who had managed to survive days without food or clean water for days, were being pulled to safety. In all, 115 people were rescued from the Wangjialing mine following the flood on March 28.

Back in West Virginia, the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine on Monday had left at least 25 people dead, one of the worst mining disasters in recent memory. With the stalled rescue-effort still dragging on, the outrage was palpable on Tuesday when Massey executive Don Blankenship showed up at a gathering of community members and got heckled by the crowd—a sign of both anger and resentment at the seemingly inescapable hazards of an industry that profits from the disempowerment of workers.

The two mining incidents took place in different hemispheres, but there was common ground between them—namely, the vacuum of oversight and the industry's lack of concern for workers' safety. Massey Energy, the people who brought you mountaintop removal mining, has a track record for wreaking havoc at both above and underground mines. The New York Times reports, "Last year, the number of citations issued against the mine more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008, and the penalties proposed against the mine more than tripled, to $897,325." Especially egregious is the rate of enforcement actions for “unwarrantable failure” to follow safety regulations, according to the Charleston Gazette.

 (Workers are not the only ones under threat; the company was slapped with a $20 million penalty for environmental violations under the Clean Water Act in 2008)

In China, the government reports that the managers of Wangjialing, which is partially controlled by China National Coal Group Corp, ignored the threat of flooding even after learning that water was leaking into a mine shaft. The management instead drove on workers ahead of an October production target, cramming the mine with more workers than could be safely evacuated. The stakes were high: coal is not only a crucial, if horribly polluting energy source in China; the coal fields in this region were rich in coking coal, a major ingredient in the steel-making process.

Similarly, the depth of the Massey mine tragedy underscores the economic quagmire Appalachian communities face, forced to cling to coal as a source of rare decent-paying jobs.

As with American mining communities, Shanxi has seen its share of controversial reforms aimed at improving mine safety. China Labor Bulletin reported last November that the government had moved to nationalize and restructure several coal mines to improve oversight. Labor watchdogs warned:

while it is true that this current action to forcibly close and merge small mines could curb corruption among Shanxi officials, it will not address the other more important reason for coal mine accidents, namely that, in both state-owned and privately-owned coal mines, mine workers have no right or opportunity to stand up for or defend their personal interests with regard to work safety, wages and benefits, working hours etc.

Massey has engaged in good-old American-style union-busting through political tactics. Employing about 5,851 workers in the Appalachia area, /the company has a history of railroading labor organizers (today, the establishment union United Mine Workers of America represents just 76 Massey employees in the region). Though the Supreme Court blocked one attempt to bankroll a state judge in a key case, Massey Executive Don Blankenship's largesse is slathered all over coal country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: "PACs and people associated Massey Energy contributed $27,100 to federal candidates and another $27,000 to state-level candidates, including two West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals candidates and Kentucky Republican gubernatorial candidate Ernie Fletcher."

Blankenship is in good company: "Overall, the mining industry has sharply increased its federal lobbying efforts in recent years, more than tripling its expenditures between 2004 ($10.2 million) and 2008 ($30.8 million).”

The tightening of regulations in the wake of the Sago Mine disaster of 2006 has led the industry to construct new roadblocks. About one in four citations are reportedly appealed, in effect paralyzing the regulatory system despite supposedly stricter standards.

China's authoritarian government is in many respects weaker when it comes to protecting mine workers. In 2004, the U.S. was actually giving lessons to China on protecting mine workers. A hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China portended the occupational hazards of China's insatiable hunger for energy:

The Chinese government has some control over safety standards in large state-owed coal mines, but virtually no control over small private mines, where most fatal accidents occur. The Chinese people are increasingly aware of the appalling death and injury toll, but one Chinese expert expressed the view that it would take decades before China reaches the safety levels of the developed world.

If Massey Energy and its ilk represent the status quo for coal mining in the "developed world," then America has a shamefully long way to go to live up to its own standards. In Shanxi and West Virginia, rescuers invoked the language of "miracles" to describe what miners needed to survive if trapped underground. But what the Massey workers and their Chinese counterparts need is not a miracle, but a real guardian angel in the form of a competent, accountable regulatory insfrastructure.

China's mines are statistically far deadlier than America's, but the tragic legacy of coal's stranglehold on Appalachia is no less ugly or lethal. Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, stated, "All explosions are preventable... It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”

Whatever the death toll, the two mining catastrophes that coincided on different sides of the world this past week attest to how the lust for fuel has rendered an embattled workforce all but invisible--until their bodies surface from the ruins of yet another tragedy.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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