On April 5, 2010, the community of Montcoal, West Virginia was devastated when an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 men. For the families impacted by this disaster, coping with the unexpected loss of loved ones is only the beginning of what is sure to be a long and arduous quest for justice. Not only does the tragedy of Upper Big Branch demonstrate the inadequacy of regulations alone to protect vulnerable workers and their families, it highlights the vital importance of our nation's civil justice system as a means of compensating victims and punishing those whose reckless conduct harms others.
As news of the explosion at Upper Big Branch unfolded, it wasn't long before details of the mine's troubling history began to surface. According to the New York Times, "the mine had been cited for hundreds of violations over the last year, including many serious ones."
Why then, did the mine continue to operate? The early evidence suggests that the owner was gaming the system to protect its bottom line, putting profits ahead of the safety of its workers.
In order to avoid steep fines and delay the need for compliance, the Massey Energy Company fostered bureaucratic gridlock by contesting most of the Upper Big Branch mine's safety violations. While regulatory officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) waded through stacks of appeal documents, hamstrung by weaknesses in the 1977 Mine Safety Act, the mine continued to operate unimpeded. What's more, the mining industry (as with many other regulated industries) has long had a revolving door between the regulators and the regulated. The ranks of the regulators are often filled with folks who come out of the mining industry. Likewise, the industry provides opportunities for advancement for regulators who decide to leave government service. This calls into question the zeal with which some regulators carry out their duties. Does a regulator really want to get tough on the company that might provide him with his next job?