What's the Matter with Martin County, Kentucky?
This story comes from the book “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell” by Alec MacGillis. The entire book is a quick, sad read, which only takes us to the 2014 re-election of the Worst Senator in America, but the story below is only tangentially related to McConnell. It's mostly about How Things Work.
Most of the words below are MacGillis'.
In October 2000, 300 million gallons of coal slurry—a mix of mud, coal waste, and chemicals—broke through a holding pond of the Martin County Coal Corporation's Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, and ran 75 miles downstream to the Ohio River. It killed 1.6 million fish, countless wildlife, carried away roads and bridges, and contaminated the water systems of more than 27,000 people.
The investigative team from the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration was led by Tony Oppegard, a senior political appointee, and Jack Spadaro, a career MSHA engineer.
The team found evidence implicating the following:
- Martin County Coal's owner, mining giant Massey Energy
- Their own agency: MSHA
Six years earlier, following an earlier, smaller slurry spill in the same spot, an MSHA engineer made a series of recommendations, but none of them were carried out, and MSHA never followed up. Now it was going to. Oppegard and Spadaro's team was ready to bring eight separate violations against Massey, including potential criminal-negligence charges.
Then George W. Bush was elected president.
On inauguration day, January 20, 2001, Oppegard got a call from superiors at MSHA telling him, basically, “Don't come back tomorrow, because you‘re out of a job.” There was a new regime at MSHA, and at its top was Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell’s second wife, whom Bush chose as his secretary of labor.
Oppegard's replacement, Tim Thompson, a district manager from Morgantown, West Virginia, reduced the eight violations to two, with a fine of $55,000 each. More: In April 2002, Thompson got a call from MSHA headquarters outside Washington, D.C., after which, with investigators watching, he crossed out a section of the draft report that called MSHA to account for its lax oversight. That was enough for Spadaro. He tendered his resignation in a letter published in the local papers. Then he was hounded for speaking out.
In 2003, the Department of Labor's inspector general released a report on the investigation confirming most of Spadaro's claims about how it was undermined by his superiors—but the impact of the report itself was softened by widespread redactions that left half of the twenty-six pages crossed out.
MacGillis adds this thought:
Why had Elaine Chao's Department of Labor gone so easy on Martin County Coal and Massey Energy? It would have been easy enough to blame the slurry spill on the Clinton administration, whose MSHA appointees had been so lax in following up on the recommendations following the 1994 spill. Doing so, though, would‘ve meant coming down hard on the coal industry—not just Massey Energy, but other coal companies as well, to the extent that the administration decided to tighten restrictions on the dozens of other slurry impoundments built over coal mines. And Elaine Chao and the rest of the administration were unlikely to take that approach. The coal industry had tripled its contributions in the 2000 campaign, more than four years earlier, and virtually all of this money had gone to Republicans.
I add this: In 2016, Kentucky went for Donald Trump with 62% of the vote. And in Martin County, Trump got 88% of the vote.
Further reading, and some apparent coal country buyers’ remorse, here.