On this day five years ago, 29 men were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. There is nothing especially surprising about it. High levels of methane in mines have a tendency to explode. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) spent a year investigating the explosion and concluded that the company, Massey Energy, operated the mine in a “profoundly reckless manner” by not providing sufficient ventilation. But I have a serious question: why should they have?
The year before the explosion, Massey Energy had total revenues of $2.7 billion. They had profits of over $100 million. The year after the explosion, the company was sold to Alpha Natural Resources for $7.1 billion. Yet for the company’s “profoundly reckless manner” of working that cost the lives of 29 men, Massey Energy was fined $11 million — roughly 10% of their profits or less than 0.2% of the total value of the company. It did have to pay $209 million in criminal fines. The only prosecution was of a superintendent with the company. But that wasn’t for the explosion; it was for interfering with the MSHA investigation.
Workers die. The worst that happens to their employers are that they lose their jobs. And let’s not be naive: they had no trouble finding other jobs. Managers might have problems if they don’t turn a profit. But killing 29 men? No one on the management side of the industry cares about that. And if that sounds too harsh, well, prove me wrong. Show me the great John Galt who cares as much for the lives of his workers as he does his profits. But you won’t, because caring about the rights of other people goes entirely against Objectivist philosophy — regardless of what Ayn Rand claimed. And that is the prevailing philosophy of modern American business.
We mark the fifth year anniversary of the deaths of 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Mine.