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After the tragic deaths of at least 25 coal mine workers in West Virginia, the safety record of the mine’s owner, Virginia-based Massey Energy Co., has started to make headlines.

It turns out that Massey, which reports earnings of about $500 million a year, has paid a record number of fines (millions of dollars in recent years) for breaking safety and environmental laws—often deliberately. The mine where last week’s deadly explosion took place was fined more than 50 times last year for safety violations that the mine operators knew about but chose not to fix. “Inspectors cited the operators more than 100 times in the first quarter of 2010, including six times for ‘unwarrantable failure’ to correct violations” (CNN).

According to Davitt McAteer, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton years, "some companies, and this appears to be one, take the approach that these violations are simply a cost of doing business — it’s cheaper for us to mine in an unsafe way or in a way that risks people’s lives than it is for us to comply with the statutes, comply with the laws" (CNN).

Monday’s explosion at the Upper Big Branch South Mine was the fourth fatal accident there in 12 years.

In January 2008, Massey paid $20 million in fines for Clean Water Act violations at coal mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. Federal regulators accused the company of violating its Clean Water Act permits more than 4,500 times between January 2000 and December 2006, sometimes discharging more than 10 times the allowable amounts of metals, sediment and acids into rivers and lakes in those states.

And another Massey subsidiary paid more than $3.5 million in state and federal penalties after about 250 million gallons of coal sludge spilled into rivers and streams around Inez, Kentucky, in 2000. Federal investigators determined that the company could have prevented the spill. –CNN

Clearly, slapping a company this big and wealthy on the wrist with fines is not enough to ensure its compliance with safety and environmental laws. By not regulating this industry more tightly, the federal government is literally letting Massey and companies like it get away with murder.

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