Thursday, April 08, 2004

BushCo: Friend of the Environment
It happened in October of 2000, when 300 million gallons of coal slurry - thick pudding-like waste from mining operations - flooded land, polluted rivers and destroyed property in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The slurry contained hazardous chemicals, including arsenic and mercury.

“It polluted 100 miles of stream, killed everything in the streams, all the way to the Ohio River,” says Spadaro, who was second in command of the team investigating the accident.

The slurry had been contained in an enormous reservoir, called an impoundment, which is owned by the Massey Energy Company. One night, the heavy liquid broke through the bottom of the reservoir, flooded the abandoned coalmines below it and roared out into the streams.

Spadaro says the investigators discovered the spill was more than an accident -- it was an accident waiting to happen.

During the investigation carried out by Spadaro and his colleagues, it came out that there had been a previous spill in 1994 at the same impoundment. The mining company claimed it had taken measures to make sure it wouldn't happen again, but an engineer working for the company said the problem had not been fixed, and that both he and the company knew another spill was virtually inevitable.

“He said, ‘We knew there would be another breakthrough,’” says Spadaro. “We knew. And I asked him how many people in the company knew and he said, ‘Well, at least five people.’"

So why didn’t they fix it? “It would have been expensive to find another site. And I think they were willing to take the risk … It was a certainty,” says Spadaro.

He says it was a certainty because there was only a very thin layer of rock at the bottom of the reservoir. But that's not what the mining company had told the government.

“They told the government that there was a solid coal barrier, at least 70 to 80 feet wide between the mine workings and the bottom of the reservoir,” says Spadaro of the barrier, which is less than 20 feet. “They were misrepresenting the facts … and they knew that. The company knew that and I'm sorry to say I believe some people within the government knew that.”

Davitt McAteer was Spadaro's boss when the disaster happened, and head of the MSHA. He says Spadaro is right, that his own regulators hadn't done their job: “I know they didn't do enough in terms of enforcement because the thing failed. That's the proof.”

“This was a catastrophic failure. By the grace of God only did we avoid fatalities,” says McAteer, who expected the report to be harsh. The investigators were going to cite the coal company for serious violations that would probably have led to large fines and even criminal charges.

But all that changed when the Bush administration took over and decided that the country needed more energy -- and less regulation of energy companies. The investigation into Massey Energy, a generous contributor to the Republican Party, was cut short.

“The Bush administration came in and the scope of our investigation was considerably shortened, and we were told to wrap it up in a few weeks,” says Spadaro.

“They cut it off. They did,” says Ellen Smith, who publishes the country’s only newsletter devoted entirely to mine safety and health. She's been writing about the mining industry for 16 years.

“People I spoke with, who were on the investigation team, told me that they believed it was absolutely cut short, that they had more work to do and they were told to wrap it up,” says Smith.

“It appeared to me they thought we were getting too close to issuing serious violations to the mining company,” says Spadaro.