MASSEY ENERGY’S HISTORY…. In light of this week’s coal mining disaster in West Virginia, there’s a renewed interest in Massey Energy’s awful record on safety and worker protections. Given the renewed scrutiny, it’s worth remembering that the problem isn’t new.

Ten years ago, the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, a giant coal-waste reservoir owned by Massey in Inez, Kentucky, sprung a leak that flooded nearby waterways with so much sludge that it was declared the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the Southeastern United States — bigger, in fact, than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Monthly published a piece from Clara Bingham several years ago on the disaster.

On Oct. 11, 2000, in Inez, Ky., a town of 500 in the heart of the state’s coal fields, a coal-waste reservoir the size of 306 Olympic-size swimming pools sprang a leak. Within six hours, 300 million gallons of thick sludge had flooded out of the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, a hilltop facility owned by Martin County Coal, and into two tributaries of the Big Sandy River, which courses along the Kentucky-West Virginia border before emptying into the Ohio River.

The gooey mixture of black water and coal tailings traveled downstream through Coldwater and Wolf creeks, and later through the river’s main stem, Tug Fork. Ten days later, an inky plume appeared in the Ohio River. On its 75-mile path of destruction, the sludge obliterated wildlife, killed 1.6 million fish, ransacked property, washed away roads and bridges, and contaminated the water systems of 27,623 people. Incredibly, no lives were lost. Even so, the EPA declared the spill the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States. In fact, the Inez disaster was almost 30 times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The company that owned the waste impoundment, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal producer in America, claimed that the flood was caused by an “act of God.” Jack Spadaro, superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a training facility for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) based in Beckley, W. Va., was part of the team assembled by MSHA to investigate. Working with eight colleagues from MSHA, an arm of the Department of Labor that regulates the coal industry, Spadaro began interviewing engineers, miners, and mine company officials to determine what had caused the impoundment to break. The investigation, which began on the eve of the 2000 presidential election, had within a month begun to collect evidence that Spadaro’s team believed could prove negligence on the part of Martin County Coal.

The evidence was never published — the Bush administration, the beneficiary of generous support from Massey CEO Don Blankenship, intervened to quash the investigation. (Indeed, the Bush administration’s record on mining oversight was itself scandalous.)

Brad Johnson also has a good piece on this today, including details surrounding a deadly fire which broke out in the Massey-owned Aracoma Alma mine in 2006, burning two men alive.

Coal River Valley activist Lorelei Scarbro, meanwhile, told CNN, “Massey Energy’s record speaks for itself. With an enormous amount of violations and previous deaths at this mine, I will leave it to you to decide if this company puts profits before the safety of its workers or views its employees as a disposable commodity.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.