With Massey Energy Execs Cutting Deals, Will the Don of Coal Country Finally Face Time?

Roger Bybee

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was known for micromanagement. In 2010, 29 mine workers were killed in an accident deemed his company's fault. (WIkimedia Commons)

Don Blanken­ship, the for­mer Massey Ener­gy CEO who gained wide noto­ri­ety for his relent­less dri­ve for prof­its at the expense of work­ers, has thus far remained unpun­ished for a major act of indus­tri­al homi­cide,” as the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca have described the April 5, 2010 explo­sion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine in Mont­coal, W. Va. that killed 29 miners.

Blanken­ship was forced to step down after the dis­as­ter but walked away with a lav­ish gold­en para­chute” that includ­ed $2.7 mil­lion upon his retire­ment, anoth­er $10 mil­lion paid out in 2011, mil­lions more in deferred com­pen­sa­tion, a free house for life, health insur­ance cov­er­age, a sec­re­tary and oth­er perks.

Blanken­ship and oth­er top Massey exec­u­tives smug­ly refused to tes­ti­fy before fed­er­al and state com­mit­tees inves­ti­gat­ing the dis­as­ter, per­haps believ­ing that they could suc­cess­ful­ly stonewall inves­ti­ga­tors by prac­tic­ing the Mafia-style code of silence known as omertà.” Shield­ed also by the con­ser­v­a­tive deifi­ca­tion of job cre­ators” like Blanken­ship and demo­niza­tion of laws that pro­tect work­ers’ lives as excess reg­u­la­tions,” the Massey CEO — with the con­fi­dence of an old-time Sicil­ian mafioso — brazen­ly stat­ed, I pret­ty well think I know what hap­pened and what the out­come will be, so I’m not con­cerned any­more about the inves­ti­ga­tion. I think it’s pret­ty much behind us.”

How­ev­er, last Thursday’s con­vic­tion of Massey exec­u­tive Gary May — who agreed to coop­er­ate with author­i­ties in exchange for his rel­a­tive­ly light sen­tence — may cause Blanken­ship to become more con­cerned. The con­vic­tion could be the first step on a trail that leads direct­ly to Blankenship.

May, a for­mer Blanken­ship under­ling, was sen­tenced to 21 months in prison and a $20,000 fine for con­spir­a­cy. He admit­ted to order­ing a com­pa­ny elec­tri­cian to dis­able a methane mon­i­tor on a min­ing machine so it could con­tin­ue to cut coal with­out auto­mat­ic shut­downs. NPR reports that May also plead­ed guilty to deceiv­ing fed­er­al mine safe­ty inspec­tors and hid­ing safe­ty violations.”

With the methane mon­i­tor shut off, the buildup of volatile methane fumes from coal dust even­tu­al­ly led to an explo­sion at Upper Big Branch so force­ful that it trav­eled sev­en miles under­ground and killed the 29 workers.

But it’s unlike­ly that May was act­ing on his own when he shut down safe­ty pro­ce­dures. Don Blanken­ship was a CEO whose micro­man­age­ment is well-doc­u­ment­ed,” as Vic­ki Smith report­ed for the Asso­ci­at­ed Press. At Upper Big Branch, for exam­ple, Blanken­ship demand­ed pro­duc­tion reports every 30 minutes.”

A high­er-rank­ing for­mer Massey exec­u­tive, David Hughart, poten­tial­ly fac­ing heavy charges for his role in the pro­lif­er­a­tion of safe­ty haz­ards in Massey mines, has also agreed to coop­er­ate. Hughart’s tes­ti­mo­ny could be crit­i­cal in final­ly hold­ing Blanken­ship respon­si­ble, observed Phil Smith, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, to Work­ing In These Times. The bur­den of proof is that [fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors] need to prove Blankenship’s direc­tion and or knowl­edge of Massey’s efforts to evade the law. With Hughart, this is the first time that any­one has looked past the mine lev­el and looked at the cor­po­rate level.”

Hughart’s tes­ti­mo­ny could be dev­as­tat­ing to Blanken­ship. Accord­ing to the AP:

Hughart is pre­pared to plead guilty to two con­spir­a­cy charges that car­ry the pos­si­bil­i­ty of six years in prison. … Pros­e­cu­tors say Hughart worked with unnamed co-con­spir­a­tors to ensure min­ers at White Buck and oth­er, uniden­ti­fied Massey-owned oper­a­tions received advance warn­ing about sur­prise fed­er­al inspec­tions many times between 2000 and March 2010. Those ille­gal warn­ings gave work­ers time to con­ceal life-threat­en­ing vio­la­tions that could have led to cita­tions, fines and cost­ly shut­downs, author­i­ties say.

Such efforts to evade state and fed­er­al safe­ty reg­u­la­tions were per­va­sive at Massey. An offi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion for the state of West Vir­ginia car­ried out by J. Davitt McA­teer, for­mer direc­tor of the fed­er­al Mine Health and Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion, con­clud­ed that:

The dis­as­ter at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been pre­vent­ed had Massey Ener­gy fol­lowed basic, well-test­ed and his­tor­i­cal­ly proven safe­ty procedures….Massey exhib­it­ed a cor­po­rate men­tal­i­ty that placed the dri­ve to pro­duce coal above work­er safety.

The obses­sion with prof­its and pro­duc­tion was exem­pli­fied by a Blanken­ship memo that exhort­ed work­ers to ignore time-con­sum­ing safe­ty pro­tec­tions and instead focus on run­ning coal”: This memo is nec­es­sary only because we seem not to under­stand that the coal pays the bills.”

This men­tal­i­ty, McA­teer deter­mined in his report, imposed what he termed the nor­mal­iza­tion of deviance”:

Most objec­tive observers would find it unac­cept­able for work­ers to slog through neck-deep water or be sub­ject­ed to con­stant tin­ker­ing with the ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem – their very life­line in an under­ground mine.

Prac­tices such as these can only exist in a work­place where the deviant has become nor­mal, and evi­dence sug­gests that a great num­ber of deviant prac­tices became nor­mal­ized at the Upper Big Branch mine.

This per­verse fix­a­tion on prof­its at the expense of human life led to a deplorable safe­ty and envi­ron­men­tal record for Massey Ener­gy in gen­er­al and the Upper Big Branch mine in par­tic­u­lar, as the New York Times report­ed:

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……

Such fines, designed to rein in Massey’s con­duct, were the equiv­a­lent of mere park­ing tick­ets to the giant coal com­pa­ny. To keep his oppo­nents at bay, Blanken­ship pur­sued a ruth­less and relent­less strat­e­gy to give Massey Coal absolute pow­er in the work­place, the coal indus­try, and in region­al pol­i­tics. From the first day he could, Don began bust­ing unions,” said Unit­ed Mine Work­ers Pres­i­dent Cecil Roberts. He was pret­ty effec­tive at that, so now Don is try­ing to extend his reach across the state in politics.”

Blankenship’s influ­ence in the region would be dif­fi­cult to exag­ger­ate. The New York Times reports that labor lead­ers cred­it him with reduc­ing union­iza­tion among coal min­ers from 95 per­cent to less than 25 per­cent. In the same vein, envi­ron­men­tal­ists say he’s the key force behind the spread of the moun­tain­top removal” min­ing tech­nique, which leaves behind an utter­ly bar­ren land­scape and pol­lut­ed streams. From the view of local Repub­li­cans, how­ev­er, Blanken­ship is both a crafty, Karl Rove-like strate­gist and the most cru­cial financier of the West Vir­ginia GOP.

Blanken­ship has thus wield­ed the pow­er of a feu­dal baron over coal coun­try. As the Unit­ed Minework­ers’ Phil Smith put it, He essen­tial­ly ran south­ern West Vir­ginia and east­ern Ken­tucky.” U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, a Demo­c­rat whose West Vir­ginia dis­trict includes a major­i­ty of Massey’s coal mines, described the Massey CEO’s influ­ence in these terms: Don Blanken­ship would actu­al­ly be less pow­er­ful if he were in elect­ed office. He would be twice as account­able and half as feared.”

But now Blanken­ship now con­fronts the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the tes­ti­mo­ny of his for­mer yes-men Gary May and Hughart could pro­duce a cave-in of his lux­u­ri­ous retirement.

While the fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tor Booth Good­win has been skill­ful­ly and patient­ly build­ing his case against Blanken­ship, how­ev­er, recent fed­er­al han­dling of cor­po­rate wrong­do­ers rein­forces the notion that they face a dif­fer­ent stan­dard of jus­tice exists than do the inner-city kids engag­ing in $50 or $100 drug deals who make up a sub­stan­tial chunk of the U.S. prison pop­u­la­tion of 2.2 million.

In the case of the 29 Upper Big Branch deaths, Massey Ener­gy, which was pur­chased in 2011 by Alpha Nat­ur­al Resources for $8.5 bil­lion, Massey paid out $10.9 mil­lion in fines to the Mine Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion — a very mod­est cost rel­a­tive to Massey’s pur­chase price. But that pales in com­par­i­son to a 2008 deal that Massey got from the attor­ney gen­er­al. As Source­watch reported:

Then‑U.S. Attor­ney Charles Miller set­tled civ­il and crim­i­nal mat­ters con­cern­ing the Jan­u­ary 2006 Ara­co­ma Alma Mine acci­dent by includ­ing an unusu­al promise not to pros­e­cute any offi­cers or employ­ees of the Massey par­ent company.

Too big to fail” served as a pre­text, first under George W. Bush and then under Barack Oba­ma, for bail­ing out Wall Street banks while pro­vid­ing no imme­di­ate aid to des­per­ate home­own­ers. That ratio­nale has now mor­phed into too big to jail,” with fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors wring­ing their hands over the prospect that pun­ish­ing exec­u­tives would result in unac­cept­able col­lat­er­al con­se­quences” cost­ing tens of thou­sands of jobs — as if these crim­i­nal exec­u­tives were irre­place­able. So despite all the damn­ing evi­dence against Don Blanken­ship, this per­va­sive reluc­tance of the Jus­tice Depart­ment under Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er to ful­ly pun­ish the pow­er­ful means that per­haps, after all, the don of Appalachia tru­ly doesn’t have that much to wor­ry about.

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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