Steve Benen relates a little story from Massey Energy’s murky past that could stand as the dictionary definition of the word “impunity”:
Ten years ago, the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, a giant coal-waste reservoir owned by Massey in Inez, Kentucky, sprung a leak that flooded nearby waterways with so much sludge that it was declared the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Southeastern United States — bigger, in fact, than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
He quotes from a five-year old investigative report by the Washington Monthly:
On Oct. 11, 2000, in Inez, Ky., a town of 500 in the heart of the state’s coal fields, a coal-waste reservoir the size of 306 Olympic-size swimming pools sprang a leak. Within six hours, 300 million gallons of thick sludge had flooded out of the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, a hilltop facility owned by Martin County Coal, and into two tributaries of the Big Sandy River, which courses along the Kentucky-West Virginia border before emptying into the Ohio River.
The gooey mixture of black water and coal tailings traveled downstream through Coldwater and Wolf creeks, and later through the river’s main stem, Tug Fork. Ten days later, an inky plume appeared in the Ohio River. On its 75-mile path of destruction, the sludge obliterated wildlife, killed 1.6 million fish, ransacked property, washed away roads and bridges, and contaminated the water systems of 27,623 people. Incredibly, no lives were lost. Even so, the EPA declared the spill the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States. In fact, the Inez disaster was almost 30 times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The company that owned the waste impoundment, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal producer in America, claimed that the flood was caused by an “act of God.” Jack Spadaro, superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a training facility for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) based in Beckley, W. Va., was part of the team assembled by MSHA to investigate. Working with eight colleagues from MSHA, an arm of the Department of Labor that regulates the coal industry, Spadaro began interviewing engineers, miners, and mine company officials to determine what had caused the impoundment to break. The investigation, which began on the eve of the 2000 presidential election, had within a month begun to collect evidence that Spadaro’s team believed could prove negligence on the part of Martin County Coal.
So what happened? Well, what do you think? Very early in the investigation, it became the time of Bush. And that was pretty much the end of the investigation. Back to Steve Benen:
The evidence was never published — the Bush administration, the beneficiary of generous support from Massey CEO Don Blankenship, intervened to quash the investigation.
And, poof, just like that, Massey Energy walked away from what Bush’s own EPA had declared to be “the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States.” Just walked away from it, without cost or consequence.
Can you imagine Exxon being able to quietly buy its way out of the Exxon Valdez disaster? (And who was president at the time? Daddy-Bush. So toppling Saddam Hussein wasn’t the only time Georgie Porgie showed us that he could pull off what his Daddy couldn’t.)
Is it too much of a stretch to wonder if the 25 people who died in the Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, West Virginia on Monday would still be alive if George Bush hadn’t been so eager to sell his political virtue, if Don Blankenship had learned ten years ago that corporate negligence can carry a hefty price tag?
Is it too late for Blankenship to be taught this lesson?