The Real “War on Coal”

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

By Peter Galuszka

Over in West Virginia, some things never seem to change.

Families of the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch are asking a federal judge to lift her gag order so they can testify before West Virginia legislators considering tougher rules that would make it easier for workers to sue employers over job-related injuries and deaths.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued the gag order last year after Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief of Richmond-based Massey Energy, was indicted on four criminal charges for his role in the disaster – the worst one in 40 years. He is scheduled to go on trial in Beckley on April 20.

The question seems to be that the judge is protecting Blankenship’s rights over those of the people hurt by his management. It is not really news in the Mountain State that has always supported Coal Barons over workers. It’s a weird, neo-colonialist thing that never seems to change.

This month, Berger denied a move by several news agencies, including the Charleston Gazette and The Wall Street Journal, to lift the gag order.

As head of Massey Energy, which has since been taken over by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, Blankenship was a true publicity hog. He was never shy about pushing his arch-conservative, pro-business views or bankrolling politicians and judges. Worrying about protecting his legal rights at the expense of free speech is a real travesty.

Yes, there is a “War on Coal” – but the other way around. The conflict is how coal bosses wage war on their employees and their families.

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18 responses to “The Real “War on Coal”

  1. The irony is that the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and all those over there who are not as ‘advanced and civilized’ as we are, actually spoil their people and distribute the benefits of the energy resources they have. They are not wise and saintly by any means, but they have spread the wealth.

    Here, those who do the actual hard work are treated worse than dirt! And those who profess to care about ‘jobs’ and the ‘working people’ only want to reward the wealthy. And worse of all, the workers are too subservient to realize that they actually have options other than doing the companies’ bidding.

    • there is rich (but putrid) irony , yes.

      the “war on coal” is the “war on folks who run or invest in coal companies” with the ones who actually get maimed or killed in the mines as the ‘poor’ workers who will be harmed if they become unemployed.

      that’s the dilemma. If the folks who have only one option to make a living because of geography and crappy educations – that option being to work in the mines – if those folks were transported to Richmond – they’d be selling drugs on the street to make a living because in both places if you do not have a decent education – your options for making a living are limited to bad and worse – and, in fact, SW Virginia and West Virginia are hotbeds for illicit oxycontin and Crystal Meth -which ironically are often sold to folks higher on the economic tier.

      the point here is that – once again – in the 21st century – if you do not have a decent education – you’re probably bound for entitlements or trying to make living dealing in things that the law frowns on.

      The tragedy of West Virginia and coal is the fact that the Coal companies depend on an uneducated and vulnerable workforce for their employee needs.

  2. we seem to have gotten ourselves into some conundrums these days:

    1. – we have now dozens of “wars on _____” everything from coal to women to poverty to jihad muslims or drug-smuggling illegals.

    2. – and to go along with that, we know have some sort of “…gate” for just about everything that has gone sideways in the last decade…

    3. – Oh.. and don’t let me forget ” out of control” – govt, POTUS, EPA, health care, etc.

    then when you add that on to Boomergeddon – well boy are we in a heap of trouble these days.. and if you talk to the poor GOP – it’s going to go on for at least 2 more years or longer if Hillary does not have a stroke or something.

    😉 ‘

  3. The judge is quite right to maintain the gag order. Taunting the pool of potential jurors would be a huge advantage for Blankenship since he’d have a guaranteed basis for appeal. At the lest he would have reason to demand a change of venue far, far from coal country.

    Some of you Progressives need to stop seeing a corporate boogeyman in every decision made by anybody.

  4. Don the R.

    The judge, curiously, is an Obama appointee. I think the gag order goes far beyond the scope of what is needed to give Blankenship a fair trial. Families of the dead miners have been speaking out for five years. WHy is it so wrong now? I’m lucky I got my interviews with them for my book when I did because I wouldn’t get them now. And, it is utterly wrong to keep people from testifying before state legislatures on crucial issues.

    As for seeing the “corporate bogeyman,” he’s kinda hard to miss in this case.

  5. The judge wants a fair trial. A lot of publicity directly in front of the jury selection process could imperil that. If you want to see bad actors put in prison then temporary silence may be the price.

    You should also get a copy of Gray Mountain by Grisham. Newly published fictional account of evil doing by coal companies.

    Grisham is a Virginian and his distaste for coal companies is palpable.

    The coal companies may finally be getting the widespread public grief they deserve.

  6. Don,
    I have read the Grisham book and found a couple of his passages remarkable similar to ones I wrote in my book “Thunder on the Mountain” that was published in Sept. 2012.

  7. Peter:

    I was thinking the same thing. While I am far from saying that Grisham plagiarized Thunder on the Mountain his perspective is very similar to yours.

    Grisham splits time between Mississippi and Charlottesville. Maybe we can get him to post a guest blog on coal mining here on the Rebellion.

  8. Gotta love don Blankenship (from Wikipedia):

    “When groundwater pollution from coal slurry injection by Massey Energy, began contaminating wells around Blankenship’s home, Massey paid to build a water line to his home from a neighboring town. Blankenship did not offer to provide uncontaminated water to any of his neighbors.”

  9. Don,
    I don’t mean to accuse Grisham of stealing anything– I like his books. The real hero of the story of Henry Caudill, a Kentucky lawyer who first exposed the coal society and strip mining to the general public in 1960 or 1961 in his book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” It was enormously influential, but the author committed suicide.

  10. The real tragedy of West Virginia is generational education deficits, a bad road system and the desperate nature of a need for jobs to soften poverty.

    Robert Byrd, for all of his faults, including his early history of racism – sought to do for West Virginia what the Feds have done for Virginia by trying to get the govt to move jobs there and to get as much of the infrastructure money as he could get his hands on to build roads that provided not only jobs but a road infrastructure that would enable better movement of goods and services – and to attract industry that needed the transport network.

    Tough environmental safeguards in West Virginia means less jobs and more poverty and the sad reality is that no matter who runs the coal companies – they’d do it on the cheap to be competitive (to the lowest denominator) and be equally demonizable if they were stupid enough to purposely seek to have high public profiles.

    For every Blankenship – there are dozens, hundreds of others who have stayed in the shadows while operating not that different … just smaller operations with names and owners that are not well recognized doing business on the cheap so their coal won’t be more expensive than others.

    The damage started long ago, long before mountain-top removal – with smaller mines that were “wet” and once the sulfur was exposed it turned the runoff into sulfuric acid which flowed into many rivers in West Virginia – making them devoid of any life. Those rivers are characterized by “orange” rocks that mark where the mine drainage enters the rivers.

    Virtually none of them have been “fixed”. It would take millions and millions of dollars to do it and no one is stepping up to pay.

    One of the true ironies is that trout fishing is the state-wide pastime in WVA – something that came about through generations of fishing the rivers for food and pleasure that was, in essence, traded for mining jobs and now WVA is dotted with fish hatcheries to stock the remaining streams that are fished so hard that there are no native trout left in most of them.

    There is a lot of blame to go around I guess but I also see it as a parable as to what can happen if education is not provided to citizens, a lack of good statewide roads, and resulting State policies to weaken regulation to attract the dirtier industries not as welcome in other states.

    West Virginia was one of the states that led to the Clean Air and Clean Water act because people realized that state boundaries do not stop pollution in the the rivers and air. The Monongahela River that flows north to Pittsburgh is acidified because of the acid-filling tributaries that flow into it.

    The Kanawha River which is formed from the Virginia New River and the Gauley is another heavily polluted river unfit to use for drinking water and that’s why they were using the Elk – also polluted but less so – until the accident.

    the weakened regulation regime in WVa tends to attract lesser-known companies with weak financials who conduct business on the cheap including the pollution abatement and “accidents” are commonplace.

    • If West Virginians want to trash their own state then I don’t imagine there is much anyone can do to stop them. However, when their pollution flows into other states ruining the environment in those states then the government should step in and stop it. If there aren’t enough jobs in West Virginia then people should move to where the jobs exist. And for God’s sake – please don’t tell me the West Virginians couldn’t survive and thrive in urban areas. People move into America’s cities and suburbs every day from Latin America speaking no English and with far worse educations that people in West Virginia get. They seem to adapt and survive.

      There is no excuse for one group of people to trash somebody else’s environment.

      • ” There is no excuse for one group of people to trash somebody else’s environment.”

        well I’ve been trying to convince JimB of that but he keeps talking about “bonding”.

        in terms of moving – same problem in rural Va. A bad/poor/insufficient education in a place like NoVa is going to turn you into a low paid worker who cannot afford a place to live and ends up with his kids going to the worst of the worst schools.. repeating the cycle…

        • You should review the demographics and academic standing of West Potomac High School and Mt Vernon High School in Fairfax County. You’ll see two schools with large percentages of minority students and students who speak English as a second language. You’ll see a lot of free and reduced price lunch program students. In one of West Potomac’s feeder elementary schools the free and reduce price lunch program percentage is well over 80%.

          Then, look at the academic standing vs the average high schools in coal country.

          For example, by SOL score, Mt Vernon is the least academically capable public high school in Fairfax County. However, it achieved higher English SOL scores than either high school in Lee County, VA.

          45% of the students at Mt Vernon qualify as financially challenged. They and their families live somewhere in the Mt Vernon district. So, 45% of the students are from families of low paid workers who have found a place to live in Fairfax County.

          In my travels to Southwest Virginia I have always been impressed by the industriousness and general intelligence of the people living there. They may be under-educated but the they are not stupid. I think many have convinced themselves that they couldn’t survive somewhere else (even within the state). That’s a shame since I think there are a lot of opportunities outside of coal country that would beat the dangerous and declining business of mining coal.

          • I’ll agree that the lower performing schools in NoVa probably are better than some of the rural Va schools (though not all – some are pretty good).

            but on the other point – a 30 year old resident of WVA is not likely to have a competitive education that enables him to get something beyond a service or labor job in NoVa.

            Hells Bells- we have NoVA folks who pick stupidly on what 4yr college degree to get who then end up serving lattes .

            It’s one thing for someone to leave their family in WVA – as in a child who did go to college and goes on to the city to find their way.

            …. and a recently unemployed miner trying to find a way to stay out of poverty – and one of the options is to move himself and his family to NoVa to get a job when he likely has a mediocre education – at best and even worse prospects of finding a place for the family to live than they can afford.

            that’s the thing about education. It’s the great equalizer but it’s also the great divider of class if you don’t have a good enough one..

            I’ worked with a few West Va guys whose parents forced them to get straight A’s in school then off to college hook or crook financially – so they could escape a certain fate if they stayed in WVa. It’s the same in parts of Western VA, Md and Pennsylvania… and appalachian NC, TN, Kentucky.

            education is the most potent of all economic development in my view.

  11. Just a little history.

    There have been a number if diaspora things.

    IN the 1930s, when J Edgar Hoover was growing the FBI, he needed many clerks. He recruited young women from West Virginia and surrounding states because they were hard workers and answered to authority. Hundreds of young, single women flocked to DC to the FBI and other federal jobs.

    Same thing happened when Oak Ridge was recruiting workers for the Manhattan project in Tennessee

    Akron has its little hillbilly sections when it recruited from the hills for its rubber factories, especially during WWII.

    Ditto Detroit.

    There’s an old saying about the “Three Rs” You learn “Readin’ and Writing’ and the Road to (Akron, Detroit, Washington, Norfolk, Chicago, Baltimore, pick one).

    • friendly amendment:

      “Three Rs” You learn “Readin’ and Writing’ and the Road to (Akron, Detroit, Washington, Norfolk, Chicago, Baltimore, – govt jobs.

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