The 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 coal miners. The 2014 Freedom Industries chemical leak left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without usable water for a month. Over the past year, the major architects of these disasters, Don Blankenship and Gary Southern have found themselves indicted for their crimes. Blankenship's involve deliberate indifference to safety in pursuit of profit. Southern's are similar, but include a healthy dose of fraud charges for attempting to cheat the victims out of compensation.
Before these indictments came in, Massey settled civil "deliberate intent" cases brought by the families of the miners who needlessly lost their lives. Freedom Industries, grossly underinsured and undercapitalized, went to bankruptcy to try to protect its corporate partners rather than even attempt to pay for the catastrophe it caused. But as most West Virginians knew from the start, there was criminal wrongdoing at the heart of both cases.
The widespread agreement that companies and their corporate leaders should be held accountable makes some current proceedings in Charleston a real mystery. Having freshly gained the majority in the Legislature, Republicans are attempting to pass legislation aimed at giving immunity to the likes of Massey/Blankenship, and Freedom Industries/Southern. This outrage is spread across more than one bill, and every West Virginian should know about them.
The Upper Big Branch widows brought their cases against Massey under a cause of action called "deliberate intent." This type of claim is reserved for employers who intentionally put their workers in harm's way, as Massey did. The new GOP majority introduced a bill to essentially abolish this kind of claim -- leaving the families of recklessly killed coal miners with a small administrative payment coming nowhere near replacing even their lost wages. The GOP bill would reduce coal miners lives to a small "cost of doing business" and threaten to leave their families on public assistance.
While they are at it, the new Republican majority is attempting to grant categorical immunity to companies that break the law, as long as they break the law in an "open and obvious" way. The legislation gives immunity even to those who intentionally break safety laws, as long as it is brazenly done. Discussion at the first hearings on the new law focused on how laws require, for example, smoke detectors in hotels, but since it's "obvious" when they aren't there, a hotel would not be liable to guests killed in a fire because of the lack of them. If student apartments in Morgantown lacked fire escapes -- well, they're "obviously" not there, aren't they?
Moreover, the chemical tank inspection law passed after the Charleston water crisis is on the chopping block too. The new majority intends to weaken the law, by allowing thousands of tanks of noxious chemicals to go uninspected, courting a repeat of the 2014 disaster. The big discovery last year was that tanks like those belonging to Gary Southern and Freedom Industries were unregulated leading up to the disaster. It would be hard to imagine a clearer case for the public to protect itself than the unprecedented Charleston water crisis, but this new legislative majority is not convinced.
Last year, Republicans campaigned on a platform of making West Virginia more "business-friendly." Is this what they meant? Are we really looking to allow companies and CEOs to hurt or even kill employees with impunity -- no accountability to families? Do we want to give companies permission to break the law by promising them no consequences if they do? And if careless chemical storage can deprive an entire region of usable water, is it too much to ask for the owners of the hazards to check them for leaks from time to time?
Accountability for wrongdoing that hurts innocent people is a core American value. Maybe these extreme bills -- the first wave from a party held out of power for eighty years -- will prove to be just a rush of blood, and cooler heads will prevail. But if this radical agenda moves forward, and this is just a part of it, West Virginians will be open to unprecedented levels of abuse from the likes of Blankenships, Masseys, Southerns, and all of their ilk who pursue the almighty dollar at any cost to ordinary workers.