By Peter Galuszka
Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.
Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.
Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.
The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.
The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.
The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.
In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.
An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.
After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile. He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.
The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.
Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.
Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.
Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.