Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

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7 responses to “Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

  1. Let’s assume Blankenship broke the law, as charged. (I know he’s innocent until proven guilty, etc., etc., but for purposes of argument, let’s assume he’s guilty.) That would imply that he broke one or more mine safety laws, just as the old A.T. Massey Coal Company also broke one or more mine safety laws. The purpose of the justice system is to punish people who break the laws, right?

    Now, let me ask you, what purpose is to be served by enacting new laws (which you’re always calling for) if the old laws are being broken? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on enforcing existing laws and punishing malfactors? Did the Big Branch explosion reveal an area in which mine safety laws were deficient? If a bunch of new laws are passed, would they have prevented the Big Branch explosion?

    I’m not being contrary here, I’m just exploring a philosophical question.

  2. As I have written about many times on this blog, the Byrd Act was proposed after UBB.

    It would make high execs and boards accountable if they willingly impede safety rules and it would give MSHA subpoena power. Right now, Dept. of Ag inspectors can subpoena farmers and buyers if they have evidence of price fixing, but MSHA cannot subpoena if they suspect dangerous conditions are about to kill miners. They have to go through state agencies or other federal ones.

    I agree that Massey thumbed its nose at its many violations and many coal firms simply do not pay fines. Stricter enforcement is obviously needed as are new laws.

    Does this answer your question?

  3. Jim,
    Oh by the way, just to give you guidance. If you go into McDonnell mode and start claiming that Blankenship is being framed, I’m not going to waste my time responding.

    • Peter, you are revealing a paranoid state of mind. (1) I never said McDonnell was “framed.” I said his conviction was built upon Jonnie Williams’ highly questionable testimony. (2) It never occurred to me that Blankenship was being framed.

  4. If I recall correctly, kidnapping and bank robbery were local crimes, but have become federal crimes to get the perpetrators since they liked to cross state lines. In other words, if the local authorities are not inclined to pursue the violators, what with the free market and all, it becomes necessary for the feds to step in.

  5. Funny this question comes up especially with regard to McDonnell – who broke no Virginia laws as his apologists keep whining…. so it was a “bunch of new laws” – Federal – that were needed to bring McDonnell to account so what would not that be a possibility with holding people accountable for people dying in mine disasters? He’s not charged with their deaths but for violating safety laws – that led to their deaths, right?

    good article Peter!

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