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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Apr 7, 2010, 8:03 am

After Deadly Mine Explosion, Will Massey Corp. Ever Face Justice?

BY Roger Bybee

A section of Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine, where 25 miners died during an explosion on April 5.   (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

By Roger Bybee

What corporations can get away with legally in the United States while ignoring the costs they impose on the public is bad enough. But it's even worse to see a corporation brazenly and repeatedly break mine-safety laws, destroy pristine mountains and rivers, and crush worker rights—and get away with it all, again and again.

One of the country's worst corporate outlaws is Don Blankenship, CEO of the Virginia-based Massey Energy Corporation, which owns the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 25 miners met their deaths yesterday after an explosion collapsed the mine's roof. Four others still in the mine are presumed dead.

Given Massey's egregious record of safety and environmental violations, this latest mining disaster should ignite an outcry for serious federal action to hold accountable a corporation that has obviously outgrown the restraints of democracy at the state level. The horrific deaths of at least 25 people buried alive or blown up in the Upper Big Branch disaster have all the earmarks of large-scale corporate negligence of the worst sort, with Blankenship pushing his managers for more coal production—at any cost.

With Massey Energy growing in wealth and political power, Blankenship has been able to far outspend the organizations and candidates—both political and judicial—who might stand up against his ruthless policy of pillage and plunder.

When Blankenship became infuriated with all the safety, environmental, and labor-law violations with which Massey was being hit, he took action. He used his wealth to essentially buy two State Supreme Court seats in West virginia, where many of Massey's mine operations are located.

He was unfazed by a firestorm of public criticism over his spending millions to buy sleazy, deceptive ads that clearly drowned West Virginia democracy with his dollars. Blankenship's $2.5 million worth of TV ads in 2004 falsely accused the court's chief justice of freeing a child molester—cynically hiding the CEO's  real agenda of getting a pliable court on environmental violations and other corporate concerns—and replaced him with a reliable friend of business.

Nor was Blankenship disturbed much when a U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled that one of his paid-for State Supreme Court justices couldn't participate in a case involving Massey because of the flagrant conflict of interest. (But the court's recent Citizens United case gives him power to engage in unlimited campaign spending on ads attacking his enemies.)

What Don Blankenship wants, Don Blankenship gets. So when he tells his mine managers to get their priorities straight and get more coal out of the ground, you can be sure they understand that they had better not allow other considerations—say, like the environment or worker safety—to stand in their way.

In a 2006 internal memo to underground mine managers, Blankenship's exasperation with what he saw as excessive caution was evident: As the New York Times reported,

In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills," he said.

Blankenship had little reason to question whether the superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine shared his obsession with making profits above anything else—despite the fact that mine had amassed a sizable number of safety violations, as the Times noted:

Federal records indicate that the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations for at least six of the past 10 years. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties…...

Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the Upper Big Branch mine was the site of two fatalities in the previous 10 years.

The disaster at the Massey-owned mine caused the most fatalities at any U.S. mine in 25 years, and comes after mining-safety enforcement was supposed to have been reformed four years ago. Those reforms occurred after 19 miners died in a series of accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky. One of those accidents led to criminal charges against a Massey subsidiary, the Times reported.

UNITED MINE WORKERS SEND TEAM

Massey's history of safety violations and fatalities in its mine prompted U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, who represents the district in which the mine is located, to declare, “This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.”  Although Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine, the United Mine Workers sent in a team of specialists to provide advice on rescue efforts and to assist the miners' families.

Meanwhile, Blankenship offered up the standard, hollow blather to miners' grieving families and the public in a statement Monday: “We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing.”

However, following past mining disasters, Blankenship apparently failed to have Massey's PR staff prepare his comments, as suggested by the Times' account:

After the disasters at the Aracoma Alma Mine, which Massey owns, and the Sago Mine, in which a total of 14 miners were killed, Mr. Blankenship drew sharp criticism after he told The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., that such accidents were rare and statistically insignificant.

But normally Blankenship is an articulate spokesman for the corporate viewpoint in opposing safety and environmental standards. He is also an active strategist for promoting a complete return to the brass-knuckled capitalism of a century ago.

Blankenship's eye-popping pay gives him the wealth to influence politics in West Virginia from  from outside the state. His checkbook has already cast a long, dark shadow over democracy in West Virginia—he has spent $6 million of his personal fortune there. The Times reports:

Don L. Blankenship is not the governor of West Virginia. But here in coal country some say he may as well be, considering the power he wields…

In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Mr. Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years. …

''Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office,'' said United States Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes a majority of Massey's coal mines. ''He would be twice as accountable and half as feared.''

UNION-BUSTING, ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION

One of Blankenship's first steps as Massey CEO was to aggressively try to move aggressively to crush the once-mighty United Mine Workers, who had already been hit hard by a major downturn in mining in Appalachia. As the Times explained:

The first step in that mission, said Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, has been to oppose unions fervently in the state.

''From the first day he could, Don began busting unions,'' Mr. Roberts said. ''He was pretty effective at that, so now Don is trying to extend his reach across the state in politics. Union leaders say Mr. Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state's coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago. …

And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal that involves using explosives to blow off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams….

Massey has had more toxic spills of coal waste than any other company in the state, and from January 2000 to December 2005, it received 4,268 citations from state regulators. The next closest company received fewer than 800.

In light of Massey's record of destroying both human lives and the environment, you have to wonder how much a corporate outlaw can get away with:

  • How many more workers need to get killed until Massey stops ignoring safety standard and executives are faced with criminal charges?
  • How many more rivers does Massey need to pollute before it receives a punishment that will be a real deterrent?
  • How many more judges can Blankenship purchase before the notion of "equal justice" becomes a bitter joke?
  • How much more are we willing to see democracy buried beneath a blizzard of dollars unleashed by Blankenship?

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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