Why do big energy companies keep cutting corners?

April 5 marked the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster which killed 29 miners — the largest of its kind since 1970. The accident was caused by large amounts of methane that weren’t ventilated correctly. Mining regulations typically require that methane is ventilated to a certain amount, but Massey Energy blatantly ignored this requirement.

As a sister of a coal miner, accidents like this worry me deeply. What if an accident like this occurred at my brother’s mine?

The number of mining safety and health regulations has increased in the past decade, and they’ve improved the safety of mines greatly. Black lung isn’t as significant an issue anymore, because rock dust is thrown over coal to prevent it from floating up in the air and being inhaled by miners. When rock dust is being spread, miners wear ventilators to keep the rock dust from being inhaled, making mining equipment much safer.

Despite this, coal companies will still cut corners so that they can produce more and make a larger profit without making mines safer. Miners may even lose their jobs so the companies can afford to follow safety regulations.

Being able to afford the extra safety equipment will hardly make a dent in the huge profits energy companies make. Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey Energy and took on some of Massey’s enormous fines from the resulting lawsuit of the Upper Big Branch mine accident. It’s a Fortune 500 company, ranking at 365.

Last semester, I interviewed my brother for an Appalachian Studies class and discovered that Alpha has made many safety improvements since inheriting Massey Energy; however, the environmental effect that Alpha and other mining companies have is atrocious.

Coal companies dig massive holes near their mines in which they store lakes of slurry that results from cleaning coal. A common chemical used to clean coal is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, and this chemical gets washed into these slurry ponds.

Image provided by Julian Guerra.
Posted danger signs outside a plant. Image provided by Julian Guerra.

In the year 2000, one such lake in Martin County, Kentucky burst and released over 300 million gallons of slurry into a valley where hundreds of homes were affected. In some places, the slurry was as deep as five feet. Many creeks and a large part of Big Sandy River were practically ruined, and all of the fish in Wolf Creek were wiped out. What company was responsible for this disaster? Massey Energy.

Mining regulations require that the bottom of slurry ponds must be 100 feet above any existing mines. Massey ignored this rule and only allotted 10 feet of space. With all that pressure from over 300 million gallons of thick sludge, the bottom of the lake gave out.

Massey Energy paid millions of dollars to half-ass the cleanup efforts. They even had the audacity to say that the creeks and rivers were “cleaner than before.”

In 2005, Robert Salyer visited the area and found that the area was still suffering. A resident dug a small hole in their yard and sludge can still be found in the soil. The creeks and rivers still have an oily sheen to them.

In the end, Massey was only fined $5,600 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration for a spill that is said to be 30 times worse than then Exxon spill in Valdez, Alaska.

Recently, in southern West Virginia, a spill of the chemical mentioned earlier, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, occurred. This spill left over 300,000 people without water. It’s still unknown exactly what caused the spill, but accidents like this can’t keep occurring.

Who can forget the massive oil spill caused by Beyond Petroleum in 2010? The accident was blamed on defective cement and the amount of money that BP has paid in lawsuits over the past 4 years has climbed dramatically. Why do companies continue to cut corners when accidents like this keep occurring? They could save millions and even billions of dollars if they’d only follow safety regulations.

It’s no wonder massive layoffs keep happening as companies continue screwing themselves over. Living in Southwest Virginia, I often hear people blame the Obama administration for layoffs because of new health and safety regulations, asking companies to spend a little extra money to keep workers and the communities they enter safe.

Although I won’t say I’m a big fan of the Obama administration myself, I do believe these regulations shouldn’t put companies in a hole. They’re put in place to prevent incidents such as the Upper Big Branch mining accident, and overall, to save lives and communities. I’m always amazed at the incredible amount of damage companies do when they enter a community. The methods used in mountaintop removal cause issues such as silicosis and damage to the gorgeous environment that attracts so many to the area. Companies may bring in jobs, but by ignoring regulations and cutting corners, they can destroy communities and continue to take the lives of residents.