published Monday, December 3rd, 2012

'Onerous rules' save lives

For all the recurring Republican rants about "onerous federal regulations" on companies and business, there is supreme value in many such regulations. They protect Americans from the effects of hazardous air and water pollution, and they serve to protect American workers whose companies ignore employee safety.

New federal charges in two cases illustrate the value of good regulation. One involves the massive BP oil spill disaster in 2010 that caused immense environmental destruction in the Gulf of Mexico and took the lives of 11 oil rig workers. The other concerns West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners the same year.

The investigations show safety regulations in each disaster were deliberately and recklessly ignored. They further demonstrate the clear need for federal enforcement of such regulations and the value of federal criminal charges for deliberate evasion of safety rules that cost workers their lives.

The latest actions against BP officials involve not just new civil liability claims for a spill that could have been prevented, and which is already costing BP tens of billions of dollars in damages. They also include 14 criminal indictments against the company itself; direct charges of 11 counts of manslaughter against two BP drill rig supervisors who disregarded clear signs of dangerous and avoidable oil-well pressure before the explosion of the drilling rig; and a criminal charge of obstructing Congress and making false estimates of the spill rate against David Rainey, BP's vice president for Gulf of Mexico production when the spill occurred.

Rainey, then regarded as BP's most authoritative expert on Gulf oil production, continually maintained the spill rate was just 5,000 barrels a day, though his BP team estimated a spill rate of up to 70,000 barrels a day. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Federal prosecutors charged the highest ranking executive yet in the former Massey mining company with conspiracy in connection with rules violations at Massey mines. The executive, David C. Hughart, the former president of the Green Valley Coal Co., a division of Massey, was described in a report by The New York Times Thursday as a cooperating defendant who will plead guilty. That status suggests he is helping prosecutors with their two-year investigation into the tactics allegedly used in Massey mines to avoid compliance with safety rules to increase production.

Earlier reports claim that mine supervisors turned off coal dust and methane monitoring equipment when federal inspectors were not present, and then alerted mining foremen to comply with safety rules when inspectors were on the premises. Though Hughart isn't charged with actions relating specifically to the Upper Branch Mine disaster, the broad conspiracy charge suggests federal prosecutions are bearing down on executive actions to avoid safety compliance.

That coincides with the charge against Rainey, which suggests that federal prosecutors under President Obama's Justice Department have been freed to investigate the culture of culpability in corporate offices that forces lower-level managers to disobey or disregard safety procedures.

BP is expected to end up paying more than $66 billion when all the civil damages and criminal fines are tallied. Coal mine owners, drilling supervisors and other bosses responsible for workers' safety in dangerous jobs should again be feeling wary of federal prosecutors when they disdain needed rules. If it's a little onerous to observe rules that save lives, so be it.

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I'm sure Joe Barton still wants us to apologize for daring to hold BP accountable.

December 3, 2012 at 12:15 a.m.
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