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In West Virginia, Safety Violations That Kill Miners Carry Smaller Penalties Than Violating A School’s Trademark

February 29th, 2012 | Travis Waldron

waldron_travis_bioNearly two years after Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, the deadliest mine accident in nearly 40 years, the West Virginia House of Delegates has just passed a mine safety reform bill that should, in theory, strengthen some of the lax laws that made the tragedy possible. Through the legislative process, the bill, already mild to begin with, has been further weakened to appease coal industry lobbyists and legislators who fear them.

Part of the bill attempts to raise the maximum fine that can be levied against mine operators who violate safety laws. While coal state legislators kowtowing to the industry isnothing new, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. uncovered a statistic that highlights the state’s shocking disregard for the safety of miners. Under West Virginia law, the maximum fine for a safety violation that results in the death of a coal miner is one-tenth of the maximum fine for violating West Virginia University’s trademark:

Better yet — why should someone face more serious punishment if they use the WVU logo without permission (see here and here) than if they kill a coal miners? That’s right, WVU trademark violators? Up to 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine. Mine safety criminals? Up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The new mine safety bill makes an attempt to raise both civil and criminal penalties for mine safety violations, but even the higher fines would be incredibly weak. The maximum civil fine for most safety violations would rise from $3,000 to $5,000 — weakened from $10,000 in the original draft of the bill — falling woefully short of the $70,000 maximum fine under federal law. And while it seeks to impose new criminal penalties on violations resulting in deaths, Ward couldn’t find a single example of county prosecutors bringing criminal charges under the existing statutes.

Last week, the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training released its report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster last week, and though its tone was “tepid” compared to other reports, it became the fourth such investigation to find that lax mine safety laws and regulations were responsible for the explosion that killed 29 miners. After the disaster, West Virginia politicians and coal industry big-wigs vowed to never let such a disaster happen again.

If recent efforts to enhance mine safety on both the state and federal levels is any indication, though, the promise from the coal industry, industry lobbyists, and coal state legislators that such a disaster will never happen again is just another example of empty rhetoric.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

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