Fines didn’t deter the polluters

June 7, 2010

Joshua Frank, co-author with Jeffrey St. Clair of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, looks at the "punishment" meted out to corporate polluters--and why it carries almost no impact.

WHEN NATURAL resource industry giants get hit with worker safety and environmental violations, they open their checkbook, pay a fine and go on operating as per usual.

At least that's the lesson learned from the recent Massey Energy's deadly mine explosion and British Petroleum's (BP) massive oil spill. Both companies have paid millions in fines in recent years, yet have gone on with their business as usual.

"Violations are, you know, unfortunately, a normal part of the mining process. You know, you have inspections every day," said Massey CEO Don Blankenship on MetroNews Radio shortly after the disaster. "And it's hard to differentiate sometimes between, you know, head count or number counts on violations and, you know, the seriousness or type of it."

According to Blankenship, these violations are simply something we should all accept. In all, Massey was levied over 1,300 safety violations at its Upper Branch Mine, where 29 miners died horrific, and arguably preventable, deaths in April. It appears these fines are just a part of doing business instead of an effective method of enforcing the law.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze on April 21
BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze on April 21

Data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) shows that Upper Big Branch Mine had six violations related to ventilation since January of this year and four since mid-March.

Last year, the mine had 50 "unwarrantable failure citations," which are the most serious acts of negligence a mine inspector can ticket a mining company. In 2009, MSHA had also proposed 458 total safety violations, which racked up $900,000 in fines.

BUT IF you thought Massey's rap sheet was long, take a peak at BP's list of documented mishaps.

Transocean, which oversees 141 oil rigs around the globe, managed BP's Deepwater Horizon rig that claimed the lives of 11 workers and continues to leak thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico daily. The company operates 15 other oil rigs in the Gulf, yet avoids paying a single cent in royalties to U.S. taxpayers.

BP also owes U.S. citizens for its law-breaking ways. Since 2005, the oil company has paid the U.S. government $485 million in fines and settlements for "willful neglect of worker safety rules and penalties for manipulating energy markets." BP is the most heavily fined energy company in the United States.

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"We need to consider whether or not [BP's] Corporate Charter in the United States needs to be revoked," Tyson Slocum, the director of energy for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C., based citizen advocacy group, said on Free Speech radio. "We need to consider whether or not its rights to win leases on public lands should be revoked."

In 2009, the British-based company paid $87.43 million for a single Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation for willful negligence that led to the deaths of 15 workers in a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery. BP handed over $50 million to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the same crime.

In 2006, an oil leak at a BP pipeline in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, resulted in a $20 million settlement for alleged Clean Water Act violations.

"The Texas and Alaska cases illustrate the twin pillars of environmental enforcement: first, protecting human life and health and, second, protecting our natural resources," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Ronald J. Tenpas of the DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "BP cut corners with disastrous consequences for both and is being held to account."

Despite the DOJ's claim that BP is "being held to account," just last month, the company paid another $3 million fine for 42 worker safety violations at a company refinery in Ohio. In fact, if BP were an actual person it would have spent time in prison, as the company has been levied two separate felony charges for violating the Clean Air and Water Acts.

"We need to get tough on corporations that fail to comply with U.S. laws and regulations," said Slocum of Public Citizen.

Federal fines have not put an end to BP's egregious environmental and worker safety violations. But consumer advocate Ralph Nader takes it a bit further, claiming that manslaughter charges ought to be considered for Massey Energy.

"In the last month, MSHA has filed a dozen citations specifically alleging the mines failure to properly ventilate the lethal, highly volatile methane gas," Nader recently wrote in response to Massey's Upper Branch Mine explosion. "That is why affected people are wondering whether any district attorneys will have the will and an adequate budget to charge Massey officials with 'involuntary manslaughter,' should the findings of the completed investigation meet the statutory definition."

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