April 15, 2010; Daily Mail | The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that cost the lives of 29 miners is the worst in the U.S. coal mining industry in the past 25 years. While giving to support relief efforts in the much larger “natural” disasters such as the earthquakes in Chile, China, and Haiti, American charitable donors have also given to efforts to help the miners’ families and the community there in West Virginia, and well they should.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin issued a statement today expressing his appreciation for the “outpouring” of support from business and individuals around the nation. Anyone familiar with the history of Appalachian coal mining knows that the impacts of this aren’t just on the families who lost loved ones, but on the entire Montcoal community and Raleigh county region.

The company owner of the mine in question, Massey Energy, just announced what it will do for the families of the 29 dead miners: life insurance payouts amounting to five times a miner’s annual pay, making workman’s comp equal to what a miner would have received on full wages, 20 years of health benefits for survivors, and $5,000 a year for child care (for the 16 children who lost their fathers in the mine).

The Massey CEO, Don Blankenship, told the Daily Mail that the families will “be OK financially,” though these insurance, workmen’s comp, and child care payouts may not succeed in avoiding lawsuits by the miners’ widows and families. Massey Energy’s philanthropy isn’t publicly tabulated, but the company’s Web site refers to its “support [of] a wide variety of educational, environmental, recreational, historic preservation, arts education and health care programs that help improve the quality of life for our neighbors in Central Appalachia,” with the most detail given to Blankenship’s creation of the community service-oriented “Spousal Group program [which] serves as the catalyst for much of the Company’s charitable work.”

According to data from the Foundation Directory Online, the Massey family’s family foundation gives largely to universities and some faith-based programs, only 14 of 468 grants in the last 5-6 years targeted to West Virginia (two $15,000 grants to the YMCA of Beckley-Raleigh County, the rest to universities except for one $5,000 gift to a local school). Blankenship and Massey Energy have been exceptionally generous with their political donations over the years and in spending “several million dollars” to influence a West Virginia Supreme Court justice election, according to FactCheck.org.

When you think of 29 families that lost loved ones in the mine explosion and a community devastated, corporate charitable giving wouldn’t undo the tragedy no matter what. In the case of Massey, with a history of 1,342 safety violations since 2005 (some for the exact issues that caused the explosion), costing the firm $1.89 million in penalties, the nation and West Virginia would have been better off had Massey Energy foregone the Christmas extravaganzas and simply put the necessary capital correcting the violations that might have saved the lives of the miners.—Rick Cohen