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The 5 Most Toxic Energy Companies and How They Control Our Politics

Energy companies continue to rake in massive profits. They use this wealth to leverage elections, write legislation, scale back regulations and escape accountability.

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Upper Big Branch and Aracoma were not isolated incidents for Massey; simply business as usual. A study done by American University found that between 2000 and 2010 Massey had the worst fatality record of any U.S. coal company. During that decade 54 miners lost their lives, compared to just six miners who died between 2000 and 2009 at Peabody, the largest coal company in the country. Massey earned over 62,000 violations during that decade, 25,000 of which were deemed "significant and substantial." The company also raked in the most fines at nearly $50 million.

An investigation ordered by then-governor Joe Manchin after the Upper Big Branch disaster found Massey's culture of profit over people was entirely to blame for the loss of 29 lives. Investigators found that Massey's modus operandi was the "normalization of deviance." It was not one single thing that went wrong on April 5, 2010 resulting in fatalities of such a magnitude. A whole number of things had to fail -- and did fail on that day. Here is what the investigation found:

Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. ... The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image to mislead the public, community leaders and investors -- the perception that the company exceeded industry safety standards. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety. It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense.

Behind every money-hungry CEO and his corporate machine are public leaders willing to be bought and regulators willing to bend. As the Upper Big Branch investigators found:

As the largest coal producer in the Appalachian region at the time of the disaster, Massey Energy used the leverage of the jobs it provided to attempt to control West Virginia's political system. Through that control, the company challenged federal and state oversight agencies, including MSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Many politicians were afraid to challenge Massey's supremacy because of the company's superb ongoing public relations campaign and because CEO Don Blankenship was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections.

It's not just the people who work for Massey who've suffered their abuses; everyone and everything nearby has been threatened as well. In an interview for "Living on Earth" Michael Shnayerson, author of Coal River, explained, "Massey routinely racks up far, far more violations than any other coal companies in the region--and there are some large companies in the region, like Peabody or Consol. Massey just doesn't seem to care about the environment, frankly."

In 2008 Massey agreed to pay $20 million after years of Clean Water Act violations. Reporting for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia,  Ken Ward Jr. wrote that the lawsuit, "alleged more than 60,000 days of violations over a six-year period, or about 10,000 days of violations per year." 

It was thought the record $20 million fine and the threat of more penalties would help Massey clean up its act, but just the opposite proved true -- Massey's pollution increased after the settlement.

Massey has drawn the ire of many Appalachian residents for its practice of mountaintop removal mining which uses explosives to blow the tops of off mountains, dumping the waste into rivers and streambeds. The sludge waste from the practice is often stored in makeshift lakes that can leak, contaminating groundwater, or worse, rupture entirely. One such containment pond sits just above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia.

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