In 2010, corporate negligence and pursuit of profit at all cost resulted in two tragic accidents – the Upper Big Branch mine and Deepwater Horizon explosions. As we watch the subsequent investigations unfold, we don’t know what the final results will be, but we can draw one firm conclusion: Similar disasters will occur in future if corporations continue to escape serious consequences for putting profits over people.
Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion
On April 5, 29 mine workers were killed in the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades. Federal regulators have reported that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was the result of a series of basic safety violations that were entirely preventable. Further, the report found that the former mine operator, Massey Energy, used “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems.
In the year before the blast, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued more violation orders at Upper Big Branch than at any other mine and shut the mine down 48 times but had to let it reopen when the violations were remediated.
Deepwater Horizon Rig Explosion
On April 20, BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out, triggering an explosion on board the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and setting-off the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Federal investigators have already identified 15 violations of offshore regulations in drilling, designing and cementing in the failed well. The investigation into whether the corporations involved in the explosion were criminally negligent are ongoing.
However, in January 2011, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, appointed by the Obama administration to review the accident and develop recommendations, cited failure of management and an industry culture that puts profits over safety as key causes of the explosion.
In the two years leading up to the Macondo well blowout, BP pled guilty to two crimes and paid more than $730 million in fines and settlements to the U.S. government, state governments and civil lawsuit judgments for environmental crimes, willful neglect of worker safety rules and penalties for manipulating energy markets.
In response to these tragic events, several interrelated actions must be undertaken: (1) a review of the regulations governing the operations of these industries; (2) passage of new regulations that incorporate enhanced understanding of risks associated with energy extraction practices; (3) investigation into the role of the responsible parties associated with the accidents; (4) determination of appropriate fines associated with the accidents; (5) the awarding of compensation to those harmed by the accidents and (6) a return to national discourse on the role of dangerous and dirty fuels in our energy future.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced the final settlement for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. The settlement consists of $46.5 million in restitution to the miners’ families, $128 million for safety improvements, research and training, and $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines.
Upon announcement of the settlement, Public Citizen released the following statement:
“Under the terms of the settlement, Alpha will pay $1.5 million to each family of the deceased. No amount of money can bring back a loved one, but offering families this sum while former Massey CEO Don Blankenship enjoys his $33 million golden parachute is a grave injustice. Thankfully, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had the wisdom to leave the door open to criminal prosecution of individual Massey officers such as Don Blankenship, who pursued high profits at the cost of his workers’ lives. Public Citizen urges the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate top Massey officials like Blankenship and pursue accountability for wrongdoing.”
Civil and criminal proceedings against BP, Transocean and Halliburton are still pending. It will be years before these cases reach their conclusion. It will be decades before the full extent of environmental damage is determined. If the Upper Big Branch settlement is an indicator, the responsible parties involved in the Macondo well blowout will likely evade true accountability.
While these tragic events must result in more robust regulations, slaps on the wrist and insignificant fines for violating protocols intended to protect workers and the environment will not stop bad corporate actors from making cost-cutting decisions as long as those calling the shots are allowed to walk away untouched.