Trump’s Top Commerce Secretary Pick Is a Billionaire Who Owned Coal Mine Where 12 Miners Were Killed
On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump made a big promise to coal miners, many of whom have lost their jobs as the industry collapses. "We’re going to get those miners back to work," he said during his victory speech in May after securing the GOP presidential nomination. "Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania… they're going to start to work again. Believe me. You're going to be proud again to be miners." Trump went on to win the nation's top four coal-producing states: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. (Clinton won the fifth, Illinois.)
But Trump's commitment to out-of-work miners appears to have faltered, as his top pick for Commerce Secretary is Wilbur Ross Jr., a New York billionaire who owned the now-defunct Sago mine in West Virginia where 12 miners were killed in an explosion in 2006. The blast and ensuing collapse trapped 13 miners for almost two days. Only one survived. At the time, it was the deadliest mining disaster the Mountain State had experienced in nearly four decades. (It was eclipsed in 2010, when an explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine, also in West Virginia, killed 29 miners.)
In 2004, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Labor Department, slapped Sago with 140 violations. Apparently, those citations didn't force Ross to improve his mine's safety: In 2005, MSHA cited the mine with even more violations, 208 total. Of those, 96 were considered "significant" or "serious and substantial." Barely into the following year, on Jan. 2, 2006, the deadly blast occurred.
Following the disaster, MSHA released a statement, saying:
MSHA became concerned that the Sago Mine's safety performance record was not as good as it should be. Mining operations at the Sago Mine more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, and the injury rate was significantly above the national average. This prompted MSHA to dramatically increase by 84 percent its on-site inspection and enforcement presence. ... several [citations] involved significant violations that were the result of high negligence.
Still, the agency said none of the 2005 health and safety violations "involved an immediate risk of injury that would have warranted [an] imminent danger order," noting that "the operator has worked to correct all health and safety problems in accordance with the requirements of the Mine Act."
Federal investigators speculated that a lightning strike may have caused the methane-fueled explosion. The Charleston Gazette reported that MSHA "concluded that stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from the sealed area where the explosion occurred could have prevented the disaster." In 2011, nearly six years after the accident, the last wrongful death suits were finally settled.
Man behind the mine
Ross is chairman and CEO of WL Ross & Co., a private equity firm. He made his fortune restructuring distressed companies across a variety of industries, including telecommunications, textiles, steel and coal. He also served as Rudy Giuliani's privatization adviser when Giuliani was the mayor of New York. (The former mayor is Trump's top pick for Secretary of State.)
In April 2005, Ross purchased Anker Coal, a Netherlands-based coal mining firm founded in 1992. But his interest in the company went back many years. According to court records and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, he had been slowly buying up shares in the company since 1999, eventually controlling the firm since at least early 2001—and its troubled Sago mine, located around 100 miles east of Charleston.
Ross claimed he wasn't involved in Sago's day-to-day operations management, but later admitted he knew about the violations, and simply dismissed them. The New York Post reported that former WL Ross & Co. executives put the blame squarely at their ex-boss's feet, noting he "had been intimately involved with the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 12 miners perished—and he knew all about its safety problems."
GOP: No more corporate accountability
The year before the Sago tragedy, Rep. Major Owens (D-NY) introduced the Wrongful Death Accountability Act, which sought to upgrade the penalty for corporate manslaughter from a mere misdemeanor to a felony offense, and doubling the maximum prison time, from six months to a year, for lying to Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety inspectors.
In his House floor speech urging support for his bill, Rep. Owens said, "the federal government is itself guilty of gross negligence in efforts to deter corporate manslaughter." Predictably, the bill was squashed by Republicans on a party-line vote. A little over a decade later, government negligence may have a new poster boy.
In 2005, the Sago fines amounted to about $96,000, essentially a slap on the wrist for maintaining what was essentially a death trap. "Such 'enforcement' has a deterrent effect akin to punishing drunk driving with fines of a few nickels," remarked Jeff Milchen, director of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a few days after the disaster.
Connecting negligence with profit, Milchen argued that preventing future tragedies like Sago "involves changing the cost-benefit analysis made by corporate executives in workplace safety decisions." Although MSHA kept firing off citations and fines, "the average fine levied in 2005—about $150—equals a few seconds of income," wrote Milchen, noting that the mine's managers "simply wrote them off as a cost of doing business on the cheap."
But perhaps no amount of money can erase guilty feelings. "For the rest of my life, the memory of those who died at Sago will haunt me," said Ross. "That will never go away. I know that the families will wonder whether there wasn't something more I could have done to make sure their loved ones would still be alive."
Tragically, there was.
On the campaign trail, Trump described himself as the "last shot for the miners,” saying he would be "an unbelievable positive." But the only thing that is unbelievable about Trump's position on coal mining is that he may put a negligent CEO in charge of the federal department whose mission is, in part, improving the living standards of Americans through "sustainable development." Evidently, Trump is more interested in having an irresponsible fellow billionaire setting the nation's industrial standards than the welfare of out-of-work coal miners he promised to help—and who helped put him into the Oval Office.
As Commerce chief, Ross would be in charge of a wide array of disparate federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Minority Business Development Agency. In what would be an ironic twist, the former mining boss would also be responsible for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the agency that conducted the official post-9/11 investigation into the World Trade Center building collapse.
Trump—who Purdue history professor Louis RenÃ© Beres castigated for taking "an evident pride in his deep historical illiteracy"—likely doesn't know that in 1825, his predecessor Thomas Jefferson feared a "government of an aristocracy ... monied in corporations ... ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." Nearly two centuries later, Jefferson's fear is coming true.