At this link is a New Yorker article that I read today. Read it and no comment from me is needed. It tells of the dark side of mining coal and the Republican corruption and blindness that is West Virginia. A terrible story that is frightening to contemplate as reality elsewhere.
Here is just a taste of the article that tells of a spill by Freedom Industries and the non-action that followed.
In 1948, West Virginia had a hundred and twenty-six thousand coal miners. By 2011, four-fifths of those jobs were gone. The most accessible reserves had been mined, and machines were cutting demand for workers underground. But King Coal remained a singular political force. The first time that John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV, a Democrat and the great-grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, ran for governor of West Virginia, in 1972, he said, “Strip mining is tearing up the beauty of our state” and “is not a good economic future.” Miners mobilized against him, heckling him at rallies, and Rockefeller lost. When he ran again, four years later, he had become a coal-industry ally, and went on to serve as governor and then five terms in the U.S. Senate.
Freedom Industries was founded in 1992 by Carl Lemley Kennedy II, a local businessman who had owned real estate and restaurants. In 1987, he had pleaded guilty to selling cocaine as part of an operation that brought down Charleston’s mayor at the time, Mike Roark. The Mayor pleaded guilty to cocaine possession and went to jail. Kennedy got probation. He and some partners converted a former Pennzoil facility into Freedom Industries, and by 2005 the business was valued, in court papers, at $13.5 million. That year, after federal prosecutors accused Kennedy of tax evasion and pocketing money withheld from workers’ paychecks, he became an informant. He made controlled cocaine buys and wore a wire to record a former business associate, a septic-tank cleaner who told his drivers to pour sewage down the drain. For his coöperation, Kennedy served less than two years.
By 2009, Freedom had forty-five employees, but it needed help from the government: a buildup of silt in the Elk River was making it difficult for barges to reach the tanks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used four hundred thousand dollars in federal stimulus funds to dredge the river, and Freedom survived. In December, 2013, Freedom was acquired by Chemstream Holdings, which is owned by J. Clifford Forrest, the founder and president of a Pennsylvania-based coal company named Rosebud Mining. Eight days after the spill, Freedom, facing dozens of lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy.
The responsibility for regulating Freedom Industries fell to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which during the past decade has been urged to scale back its enforcement. “It’s not subtle,” Pam Nixon, who retired this year after fifteen years as a senior department official, told me. She recalled a staff meeting in which Joe Manchin, the governor from 2005 to 2010, “said that when the industries see the D.E.P. coming onto their property he wanted them to feel comfortable.” Manchin, a Democrat, had prospered as a middleman who helped coal mines sell to power plants and other users. Once in office, he repeatedly advised the department to shift its emphasis from enforcement to “compliance assistance.” By that, Nixon said, he meant, “If there was a problem, work to make sure that the company can continue to operate. . . . He didn’t want us to come down heavy-handedly.” Nixon, who served as the department’s Environmental Advocate, expressed her concerns about gaps in enforcement to the head of the department, a Manchin appointee named Randy Huffman. “He said, ‘Remember how this administration feels about these industries.’ ”
In 2008, the Charleston Gazette discovered that in a nearly five-year period coal companies had self-reported around twenty-five thousand violations of the Clean Water Act, but the D.E.P. had not reviewed the reports or issued a fine. The following year, federal investigators from the Office of Surface Mining wrote that West Virginia had become so lax in its enforcement of coal-mining pollution regulations that “the consequences for violating the law, even when the violations are intentional, willful and blatant, are not significant enough to be a deterrent.” In 2010, Manchin left the Governor’s Mansion and ran for the U.S. Senate. He promised to protect the state from environmentalists’ “attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia.” The American Chemistry Council, the leading industry group, spent two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars on advertisements praising Manchin as the “Senator for Our Future.” In a campaign ad, Manchin fired a rifle into a copy of a climate-change bill. On his Senate financial disclosures, he has reported income of more than three million dollars between 2009 and 2012 from Enersystems, a coal brokerage that he owned. (It is now run by his son.)
At the Department of Environmental Protection, the commitment to “compliance assistance” endures. An inspector told me that senior officials often question the field staff’s attempts to penalize companies that violate the law. He said that the resistance was “a slap in the face” to professional inspectors. If they persisted in trying to issue a violation, instead of a warning, they faced added paperwork. “That process of enforcement just takes a toll on you,” he said. “It should be easier.”