Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The worst environmental disaster you might have never have heard of

Until recently, I was completely unaware that on October 11, 2000 "the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States" occurred, resulting in the dumping of "an estimated 306 million gallons of toxic sludge down 100 miles of waterways." The disaster was the result of a coal slurry spill in Inez, Kt. Why had I not heard about this?

The subtitle of the Salon article, Dirty business, from which I discovered this information, suggests an answer: "How Bush and his coal industry cronies are covering up one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history."

Jack Spadaro, who was part of the investigation into the spill, charges that soon after the Bush administrion took office the efforts were made to absolve Martin County Coal, the company responsible for this spill, of any wrongdoing:

Spadaro and his teammates had been uncovering information that had far-reaching implications for both Massey Energy (the parent company of Martin County Coal and a major contributor to the Republican Party) and the coal industry as a whole. Testimony and documents revealed that executives at Martin County Coal and federal regulators were aware that there was potential for a catastrophic failure at the slurry impoundment but didn't take proper actions to avoid it. In particular, an MSHA engineer had made a list of specific safety recommendations to Martin County Coal and MSHA district officials following a 100-million gallon spill in May 1994. But MSHA and Martin not only largely ignored the recommendations, MSHA actually allowed Martin to add coal waste to its impoundment.

By the end of 2000, Spadaro and other investigation team members felt they were beginning to collect enough evidence to issue Massey Energy citations for willful and criminal negligence. In addition, it looked as though their own agency, MSHA, was going to be held accountable as well. But that all changed when George W. Bush moved into the White House. Within days of Bush's inauguration a new team leader was brought in to head the Martin County Coal investigation. The scope of the investigation was dramatically narrowed
The EPA ended up citing Massey for two minor violations and fined them a total of $110,000 (eventually settling on a fine of $55,000 after appeals by Massey), which drove Spadaro to tender his resignation in protest. He was soon after put on leave from his position at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Academy, which had also been found to have been negligent in Spadaro's original investigation.

When the inspector general's office in the Labor Dept. issued a report on allegations made by Spadaro of Bush administration obstruction of justice the conclusion read, "No evidence was uncovered to substantiate any allegations relating to MSHA's Martin County Coal accident investigation."

Yet the report was heavily redacted

Ellen Smith, an award-winning investigative journalist who publishes Mine Safety and Health News, had this to say about the IG report: "I have been reporting on mining issues since 1987, and I can tell you that in all of these years of reporting on mining issues we have never seen a government report with redactions like this one. They might redact people's names. They might redact dates. But in this case, it was literally half the report, and there are pages and pages of redactions. How they reached their conclusions, we will never know, because they have taken all of that out of the report."
Spadaro then became a target for his whistle-blowing

In October 2003, MSHA charged that the superintendent had abused his authority at the academy, made unauthorized cash advances on a government credit card, and failed to follow supervisory instructions and appropriate accident procedures. The most serious of MSHA's charges against Jack Spadaro revolve around the superintendent's granting of free room and board to two instructors who were disabled. MSHA also says that Spadaro violated government rules by providing free room and board at the academy to participants in a mine rescue competition.
Another article on this matter, explains the specious nature of these charges

Spadaro's government credit card and travel records were audited. It turned out that between November 2001 and July 2002, he had used his government credit card to take out 13 cash advances when he needed money to entertain dignitaries and students at the academy. The processing fees for those 13 cash advances totaled $22.60. Spadaro paid his bills on time. In October 2002, Spadaro was told that his abuse of the credit card was a “serious offense.” One year later, he was informed that he would be suspended for three days for the crime of making cash advances when he wasn't on official government travel.
Spadaro eventually grew tired of fighting the administration and retired. And it appears the Bush administration's near complete exculpation of Massey is another case of plutocratic cronyism

Massey Energy, Martin County Coal's parent company, gained a front-row seat to the new Bush administration when it invited James H. “Buck” Harless to join its board in 2001. Harless, a West Virginia coal and timber baron, had raised $275,000 for Bush's 2000 campaign, given $5,000 for the Florida recount, and contributed $100,000 to the president's inaugural fund. Bush nicknamed Harless “Big Buck” and invited him to join the administration's transition task force on energy. “We were looking for friends, and we found one in George W. Bush,” Harless told The Wall Street Journal.

Bush also demonstrated his friendship to industry leaders when he awarded the top job at MSHA to an executive with Utah's Energy West Mining Company, David Lauriski, whose top two deputies would also be recruited from mining companies. The woman who would become their boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, is the wife of Kentucky's Republican senator Mitch McConnell, a long time political ally of coal companies. Chao soon hired several of McConnell's Senate staffers to work in top positions at the Department of Labor. According to Common Cause, from 1997 to 2000—when McConnell was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee—the coal industry gave $584,000 to the NRSC. In 2002, while the company was still under investigation, Massey Energy would give the committee a first-time donation of $100,000, although by then McConnell was no longer the chairman. McConnell left his fingerprints on his wife's agency despite their insistence that there was no conflict of interest. Chao's chief of staff, Stephen Law, was one of McConnell's top aides and Stuart Roy, Chao's spokesman, was formerly McConnell's press secretary. Another former McConnell staffer, Andrew Rajec, was hired to work as a special assistant at MSHA, where he attended several meetings on the Martin County report. In 2002, a Kentucky mine owner named Bob Murray threatened to have some MSHA inspectors fired because they had cited his mines for failing to comply with regulations. “Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America,” Murray told the inspectors, according to local press accounts. “And the last time I checked, he was sleeping with your boss.”

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