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Those who can still recall Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (in Montcoal, West Virginia) disaster, on April 5, 2010, where a mammoth coal mine explosion killed 29 miners, will be pleased to learn that Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is finally being brought to trial.
Given what we now know of events that led up to the explosion (i.e., poor ventilation had created a deadly build-up of methane gas which was ignited by a random spark), what was originally referred to as a “terrible disaster” or “tragic accident” can more accurately be labeled “negligent homicide.”
It took more than five years to get this unconscionably greedy and devious bastard to face criminal charges, but they finally managed to do it. Blankenship faces four counts, including conspiring to violate health and safety codes, lying to the SEC, and defrauding federal regulators. If found guilty on all counts, the 65-year Blankenship could spend the rest of his life in prison.
On June 28, 2010, federal regulators announced they had discovered that Massey Energy was keeping two sets of “books” (safety logs), with one set reflecting actual mine safety conditions (which, alas, were in egregious violation of code), and the other set serving as a fictionalized showpiece, the equivalent of a Potemkin village, used to mislead government safety inspectors.
As outrageous as it seems, two sets of books isn’t unheard of in the industry. Because mining companies have nothing but contempt for the federal government and its lapdog, the MSHA (Mining Safety and Health Administration), they will do whatever it takes to extract that precious ore from the ground. In 2001, at a coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama, two sets of books were found after an explosion killed 13 miners. The Bush administration opted not to file criminal charges.
It should also be noted that, despite its spotty record, the mining industry continues to lobby for “reduced” safety regulations, arguing that the industry can “police itself,” and that American businesses should be entitled to earn an honest dollar without government interference. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) support deregulation.
Even though Massey Energy’s mine was a non-union operation, the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) agreed to assist the miners in the investigation. While it gave no one satisfaction to point out the obvious, it’s an undeniable fact that union mines are significantly safer than non-union mines. Why? Because a union voice can’t be ignored or dismissed, particularly when it comes to something as important as safety.
In June of 2010, I spoke by telephone with Phil Smith, the UMWA Communications Director. Although he didn’t want to jump the gun and discuss Massey until after UMWA president Cecil Roberts himself had the opportunity to weigh in (which he did later that afternoon), Smith noted that the MHSA had improved greatly over the last year and a half.
Part of the credit for that improvement went to the Obama administration for appointing Joe Main to run the MHSA. Main started out as a coal miner himself, and eventually rose to become the UMWA’s safety guru. So instead of being run by a bureaucratic “climber,” the MHSA now had an ex-miner looking out for other miners, which is exactly what the industry needed.
Admittedly, when something like the Upper Big Branch explosion happens, some of us wax nostalgic for simpler time, when lawless tyrants like Blankenship (he made “19.7 million in 2008) would have been punished swiftly and resolutely. Say what you will about China’s tumultuous “Cultural Revolution,” but Chairman Mao wasn’t entirely wrong.
To compensate for their fatal greed and deception, and to serve as a clarion warning to other titans of industry who might be tempted to place profits above employee welfare (Massey’s revenue in 2009 was $2.3 billion), Blankenship and his lieutenants would have been publicly executed.
They would have been lined up against a wall and shot, and the lives of those 29 miners—family men who made their living doing the only decent-paying job available in that part of West Virginia—would have been avenged. Call me a sentimental fool, but that denouement seems very close to a “happy ending.”