Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Coal mine disaster and why the corporation will not suffer

Finally, all those years of watching crime based TV shows has paid off.  I was reading the news about the coal mine disaster in West Virgina and the fact that the mine has had 57 safety violations in just the last month.  They said it was infamous Massey Coal.  Then i saw a post calling it Peformance Coal Company. Then it hit me.  Remember, the first rule of setting up a criminal enterprise is make sure you have a fall guy ready in case something goes wrong.

The latest coal mine disaster is as familiar as all those that have come before it. It will be met with great dismay and sympathy by the American public, the coal corporation will suffer no meaningful penalty, and the final sad certainty is that the miners will return to equally unsafe mines as soon as the last funeral is over. They will return because they have no other choice. The miner workers are as close to serfs and it is possible to get. They are tied to the mines by poverty. They have to choose between two horns of the same dilemma. Unfair working conditions in the mines or crushing poverty outside of the mines. The coal companies have spent decades perfecting these methods and they show no signs of changing. 

This is a dismal situation and there is no quick answer to the fundamental injustice of paying people to put their lives at stake needlessly or watch their families starve. However, there is a solution to the coal companies avoiding the consequences of their greed over and over. That is to make the corporations pay for their violations and not hide behind a shield of corporate subsidiaries. They shuffle assets and cash in one company and liabilities and debt in another. Then allow the loser company to file bankruptcy. Voila – no debt, no fines, and no cost to correct the environmental disasters you create and heck if you’re really good, no reason to pay pensions you promised.

Massey energy and its numerous puppet corporations are experts at this shell game. Massey is one of the most blatant offenders in the coal industry. They almost take pride in their obstructionism to reform, breaking of unions and flaunting of regulations. The CEO of Massey told a CBS news crew that if they did not want to be shot they had better not take any pictures. But the best thing Massey energy has done is to learn how to play the subsidiary and spin off game. 

You may have heard this mine disaster as being at a Massey mine. But no, no it’s not really a Massey mine it belongs to one of their zombie subsidiaries –Performance Coal Company. The pattern goes something like this. Once a mine has operated long enough to need massive upgrades to maintain safety and environmental standards, the mine is spun off into an “independent” corporation. As long as the mine is profitable, the phony company can shift cash back to the mother corporation by dozens of ways – most perfectly legal. But, the minute there is a disaster, wham Massey? Who is Massey, we are Performance mining. Of course, the shadow company does not have deep pockets and so any fines or cleanup costs are simply swept away with a convenient bankruptcy. 

The same thing happens when the mine plays out and the company is facing the cost of cleaning up all the mess like it promised to do in its mining applications. Of course, they do not spend tens or even hundred millions of dollars to honor their legal obligations when a few million will get them a comfortable bankruptcy settlement. Massey and the coal industry are famous for this. But in truth, it is a common corporate trick. The phosphate mines of central Florida have done the same things over and over. Somehow all the dead mines, devastated land, and huge lakes of radioactive toxic sludge end up on the books of a minor corporation. The billions of dollars of profit however are safe in some offshore account with the major corporation de jour. 

I really don’t have the slightest hope that our corporate purchased legislature will do anything to fix this. But I wanted to explain it to anyone willing to listen. We live in a world of corporate corruption and it has real consequences. Not just the tops of 500 mountains blown away to maximize profit, not the valleys and streams choked with debris. Those are terrible irrevocable costs. But other costs abide, men blown to bits in shoddy mines and their families choked with grief and facing a life without income, without hope and without family. 

Living simply does not mean living blindly and this kind of economic injustice and wage slavery is increasing everyday in the great American meltdown.

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