by Arianna Huffington

Officials say it's too soon to pinpoint the exact cause of the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that took the lives of 29 miners, but we certainly know enough to identify the root cause.

It's the same cause that led to the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster in Utah that killed six miners and three rescue workers, and the 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 miners. And it's also the same cause that led to the Lehman Brothers disaster, the bursting of the housing bubble, and the implosion of our financial system: a badly broken regulatory system.

The loss of life at Upper Big Branch happened in one horrific instant. The economic collapse has not killed people, but it has gradually destroyed millions of lives. Both calamities occurred because elected officials who should have been creating a regulatory system that protects working families instead created a system that protects the corporations it was meant to watch over.

The problem isn't a shortage of regulators. It's the way we've allowed the regulated to game the system. The federal government has an entire agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), dedicated to overseeing the mining industry. A federal inspector was at the Upper Big Branch mine hours before it blew up.

Similarly, before the economic meltdown there were dozens of federal regulators dedicated to keeping an eye on the big banks. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had federal oversight offices dedicated solely to them. And, after Bear Stearns crashed, Tim Geithner's New York Fed had a team of examiners at Lehman Brothers every day. Yet they still missed the economic collapse.

Regulations are "very difficult to comply with" and "so many of the laws" are "nonsensical." Those are the words of Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owns the Upper Big Branch mine and has a grotesque history of safety violations.

In the case of the financial industry, the reason it can't be regulated adequately is because, as Alan Greenspan put it last week in testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, "the complexity is awesome," and regulators "are reaching far beyond (their) capacities."

Something else the mining and financial industries share: the revolving door between regulators and those they're supposed to be regulating.

Former Massey COO Stanley Suboleski was appointed to be a commissioner of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission in 2003. And Massey exec Richard Stickler was made the head of the MSHA by President Bush in 2006. Talk about hiring the foxes to guard the hen house.

The story is remarkably similar to that of the financial industry. A disaster occurs. Politicians are "outraged" and demand reform. Laws are passed. And then, when the next disaster occurs, we find out about the loopholes.

Massey offers a textbook example of how this works. After the Sago disaster in 2006, new mining regulations called for a company found to have a "pattern of violations" to be subject to greater scrutiny.

In 2009, Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine was ordered to be temporarily closed over 60 times. That same year, the mine was cited for 515 violations, and it received another 124 this year. In the 10 years before the Upper Big Branch explosion, 20 people had been killed at Massey mines.

So how did Massey escape greater oversight? A loophole written into the law says a violation won't be counted toward the establishment of a pattern while a company is contesting it. Massey is currently contesting 352 violations at the Upper Big Branch mine alone.

Another loophole in the law says that a company can delay paying a fine if it contests the violation. The result? Only $8 million of $113 million worth of major penalties levied against mining companies since April of 2007 have been paid.

I'm sure there will be new regulations written in response to this latest mining disaster. But by the time these regulations make their way through the congressional sausage grinder, lobbyists will have added in the loopholes that ensure that the fix is in -- and that the American people get the short end of the stick. Again.

There is no sense of urgency in Washington about making sure these corporations play by the rules. In 2007, after the Utah mining disaster, we got angry, we held hearings, we supposedly fixed things, then we moved on. Three years later, 29 miners die.

In the same way, in 2003, after the Enron and WorldCom disasters, we got angry, we held hearings, we supposedly fixed things, then we moved on. Five years later, we got AIG, Lehman Brothers, Citi, and an economic crisis that continues to devastate the lives of millions. Will we just sit back and let the cycle start again?

Disasters -- both mining and financial -- are going to keep happening until we re-evaluate our priorities, and force our elected officials -- and the regulators they pick -- to put the public interest above the special interests and their lobbyists in Washington.

The lives of hardworking Americans have to take precedence over the bottom line at Massey Energy and on Wall Street.

This isn't a matter of right vs. left. It's a matter of right vs. wrong.


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West Virginia Mining Disaster and Financial Crisis Have Same Root Cause | Politics

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