Don Blankenships record of profits over safety: “Coal pays the bills”

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"Don Blankenships record of profits over safety: “Coal pays the bills”"

Don BlankenshipAfter the worst coal mining disaster in at least 25 years, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is facing long-overdue scrutiny for his record of putting coal profits over fundamental safety and health concerns. Blankenship, a right-wing activist millionaire who sits on the boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, used his company’s ties to the industry-dominated Bush administration to paper over Massey’s egregious environmental and health violations.

Massey rewarded Republicans with massive donations after the company avoided paying billions in fines for a 2000 coal slurry disaster in Martin County, three times bigger than the Exxon Valdez. After both mine inspectors and Massey employees got the same message that it was more important to “run coal” than to follow safety rules, a deadly fire broke out in the Aracoma Alma mine in 2006, burning two men alive.  Brad Johnson has the full story of Blankenship’s reckless pursuit of profits over human safety in this TP repost.

Blankenship was abetted by former employees placed at the highest levels of the federal mine safety system. Massey COO Stanley Suboleski was named a commissioner of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission in 2003 and was nominated in December 2007 to run the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy. Suboleski is now back on the Massey board. After being rejected twice by the Senate, one-time Massey executive Dick Stickler was put in charge of the MSHA in a recess appointment in October 2006. In the 1990s, Stickler oversaw Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, the operator of the deadly Upper Big Branch Mine, after managing Beth Energy mines, which “incurred injury rates double the national average.” Bush named Stickler acting secretary when the recess appointment expired in January 2008.

Below are further details of these two past incidents that foretold Blankenship’s latest disaster:

THE FATAL ARACOMA MINE FIRE

Aracoma FireBlankenship Branded Deadly Fire At Dangerous Aracoma Mine “Statistically Insignificant.” In the most egregious case of preventable death before the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to “plead guilty to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and pay $2.5 million in criminal fines” after two workers died in a fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia. Massey also paid $1.7 million in civil fines. The mine “had 25 violations of mandatory health and safety laws” before the fire on January 19, 2006, but Massey CEO Don Blankenship passed the deaths off as “statistically insignificant.” [Logan Banner, 9/1/06; Charleston Gazette, 12/24/08]

Federal Mine Inspector Who Wanted To Shut Down Mine Told To “Back Off.” Days before fire broke out in the Aracoma mine, a federal mine inspector tried to close down that section of the mine, but “was told by his superior to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal.” Massey failed to notify authorities of the fire until two hours after the disaster. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/23/06]

Blankenship Memo: “Coal Pays the Bills.” Three months before the Aracoma mine fire, Massey CEO Don Blankenship sent managers a memo saying, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal . . . you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.” [Logan Banner, 9/1/06]

THE MARTIN COUNTY COAL-SLURRY DISASTER

Martin County Slurry DisasterThree Times the Volume of the Exxon Valdez Spill. Massey Energy is the parent of Martin County Coal, responsible for the “nation’s largest man-made environmental disaster east of the Mississippi” until the 2008 Tennesee coal-ash spill In October 2000, a coal slurry impoundment broke through an underground mine shaft and spilled over 300 million gallons of black, toxic sludge into the headwaters of Coldwater Creek and Wolf Creek,” in Martin County, KY. [Lost Mountain, p. 128]

Site Denied Superfund Status. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency “determined that the slurry spill was not a release of a hazardous substance” and thus ineligible for Superfund status. [KY EQC]

Sen. McConnell and Wife Stopped MSHA Investigation. U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Chao “put on the brakes” on the MSHA investigation into the spill by placing a McConnell staffer in charge. In 2002 a $5,600 fine was levied. That September Massey gave $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by McConnell. [Lexington Herald-Leader, 10/2/06, OpenSecrets]

$2.4 Billion Becomes $20 Million. In May 2007 the EPA filed suit for $2.4 billion against Massey for violating “Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times from the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2006″³ in West Virginia and Kentucky, including the Martin County spill. In January 2008 Massey agreed to pay $20 million to settle the case. [Lexington Herald-Leader, 1/18/08]

Photo credit: Bill Rhodes

The New York Times reports that the families of coal miners have been registering their displeasure with Blankenship:

Some of these tensions boiled over around 2 a.m. Tuesday when Mr. Blankenship arrived at the mine to announce the death toll to families who were gathered at the site. Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives.

Crooks & Liars recalls that Blankenship “spent over $1 million dollars along with other US Chamber buddies like Verizon to sponsor last year’s” right-wing Friends of America” rally in West Virginia.
Lorelei Scarbro, an activist who fights on behalf of miners’ rights, tells CNN: “Massey Energy’s record speaks for itself. With an enormous amount of violations and previous deaths at this mine, I will leave it to you to decide if this company puts profits before the safety of its workers or views its employees as a disposable commodity.” Scarbro’s husband was a coal miner who died of black lung.

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27 Responses to Don Blankenships record of profits over safety: “Coal pays the bills”

  1. Ivy Bear says:

    Revoke the corporate charter.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sadness and Solution

    What strikes me, watching the news on the recent disaster, is the degree to which the miners and their families passively accept matters — and seem trapped — and simply “adapt” to living dangerous lives underground, in the shadow of someone like Blankenship.

    A reporter will ask something like, “How do you feel about the dangers, about the safety violations, about the company, and about life underground?”

    And miners or their family members usually respond by saying something like this: “I try not to think about it much, and the salary puts a roof over our heads and allows us to eat.”

    In some ways, it all feels like a form of entrapment, enslavement, conditioning, and so forth. It’s rather amazing what humans can “adapt” to, and accept, and put up with, if they convince themselves that there is no other option for them!!

    In solving this mess (the CO2 problem with coal, as well as the safety problems and the whole lack of attractiveness of life in a hole), society is going to have to create and get the miners better jobs, with better conditions, and better pay. Period. The miners are going to feel a need to put up with the Don Blankenships of the world until they are given better opportunities. We won’t be able to reduce our coal habit unless there are better jobs for the miners to fulfill, to have, to enjoy.

    If Don Blankenship thinks that coal is the future, then perhaps someday he will have to go into his mines, himself, in order to get it. Hopefully, the other miners will all have much better jobs on the surface, in the light of day, where they won’t be blown up!

    Jeff

  3. catman306 says:

    Has anyone found connections between Mr. Blankenship and the Koch brothers?

    Prosecute the ring leaders! These people are creating chaos with all manner of lies simply for their love of money and power. They are fathering evil in the biblical sense. I complain because it’s my world, too.

  4. Mark says:

    You mention that Massey agreed to “plead guilty to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and pay $2.5 million in criminal fines” but has anyone who works for Massey been sent to jail for these or other criminal violations?

    If not, why doesn’t criminal conduct of this magnitude result in those responsible serving time?

  5. Until the stockholders of Massey Coal are held liable then nothing will change. Blankenship is acting on behalf of shareholders.

  6. charlie says:

    http://notlarrysabato.typepad.com/doh/2010/04/better-use-of-the-coochs-time.html

    I have no problems with coal mining but the true health,safety and environmental costs make it a very expensive fuel. It is wonderful stuff. Perhaps we should be saving it instead of burning it all up while we could use renewables.

  7. Jeff Huggins says:

    I tend to agree with Richard Pauli (in Comment 5) and in similar fashion with Ivy (Comment 1).

    Some major law firm should bring a huge class action suit against Massey Energy. Given all the lives lost, and the recklessness, and the general disregard for safety issues, the suit should be for hundreds of millions, if not a billion or more.

    State and Federal authorities should also investigate — with passion — whether Blankenship or anyone else broke the law and/or could be held civilly liable to some degree.

    Any safety regulators who did not act with responsibility and due diligence should be fired.

    Organizations (or wealthy private individuals) interested in reducing our reliance on coal — for climate change and/or safety reasons — should also consider helping to bring, or fund, a lawsuit.

    This situation provides a perfect example of where the law (the criminal law, and the civil law) should play very large roles.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  8. substanti8 says:

    The story of coal industry exploitation goes back 150 years.  But Americans have been willing to ignore the exploitation, as long as the energy flows into their cities and keeps the narcotic television running.  It’s always “out of sight, out of mind,” even in the face of brilliant lyrical pleas like this song by Darrell Scott.  I don’t expect any of this to fundamentally change until nature bites us hard in the rear and forces an end to the rampant narcissism – and an end to the capitalist system.

  9. Bruce Snider says:

    This CEO should be prossecuted for negligent homicide. The present state of affairs with our corperations bribing top officials with campaighn contributions is wrong. This CEO is the worst of the lot, places profit befor lives. This is some more regal thinking from the top of our corperate ladder. The french arrristocracy would have been proud of how uncareing the corperate top has become. Long live the corperate kings. Or We the workers who are about to die salute you.

  10. paulm says:

    The guy is a walking disaster.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    As much as I detest the horrible crimes that Don Blankenship and his Massey Energy commit, we ought to keep our rhetoric proper and our anger focused on the prize. I’ll leave the “Wanted” posters to the angry haters.

    Support legal action, boycotts, letters to the editor, mine safety for workers, and oppose MTR. Make common cause with the people who live there. Don Blankenship is rich, powerful, and smart. Folks need help understanding the nasty things he does. He is not a benevolent dictator.

    Coal is beautiful. Leave it in the ground.
    Coal miners and their families are special. Teach them to harvest efficiency and the wind and the sun.

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Jeff,

    “What strikes me, watching the news on the recent disaster, is the degree to which the miners and their families passively accept matters — and seem trapped — and simply “adapt” to living dangerous lives…”

    Having grown up on a farm and worked some in construction I’m pretty familiar with the good ol’ boy/macho attitude that’s common among labor.

    It’s not common to see framers pin back the guards on their “sidewinder” saws and walk around with the triggers pulled on their nail guns. If no one is worried about the inspector turning up then you’re unlikely to see guard rails installed on the scaffolding.

    My uncle had his thumb torn off fixing a hay baler. He didn’t want to take time to stop and restart it, he was trying to beat the rain.

    Companies not only have to follow the ‘letter’ of the safety regulations, they have to go a further and make sure the guys doing the work get past the attitude that working safe is “sissy”.

  13. mike roddy says:

    Blankenship and the Massey Board are career criminals. Since nothing shames them, it will take a courageous prosecutor to go after them and put them in prison.

  14. Jeff and Bob, Miners DO speak up, but never in public, and only to trusted friends. If they say one word of complaint, they lose their jobs, and in many of these places (where the mines operate) there very few other good jobs to be had.

  15. Chad says:

    Frankly, I consider Blackenship’s actions criminal. A handful of minor violations is one thing. Even companies that are doing their best will make a few mistakes, and appreciate it when the inspectors catch things. However, thousands of vioations, many of them very serious, implies that management not only doesn’t give a hoot, but actively encourages improper behavior whenever it thinks it can get away with it.

    I think 25 counts of manslaughter against Massey’s senior management would send the appropriate signal that this kind of behavior is utterly intolerable.

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    We probably need an attorney who is knowledgeable in corporate law, in particular WV corporate law, to weigh in here.

    From my days of being a corporation I remember being pretty personally protected from going to jail for what any of my employees did.

    It might be that the only way to stick Blackenship in jail is to prove that he personally removed/disabled safety equipment or directed someone under him to do so.

    That said, we all know how bosses can let one know what they want without actually saying the words. And unless the words are said it’s hard to prove responsibility.

  17. Chris Dudley says:

    Just like those old problems where the lack of action by inspectors provided the conditions under which they occurred, the present situation is owing to lax enforcement. The Obama administration is very pro coal and it is signaling a lax attitude. But, the situation is actually worse because there very little space remaining to claim ignorance of the way things are in WV.

    One is left stunned. Is this payback for WV going for Hillary? Just let the state rot with more MTR and mine accidents? More likely it is the quarter million dollars from the coal lobby the President took that plays the largest role in the deadly decisions being made.

    These unsafe mines have to be shut down. MTR must be stopped. It is time to use the courts because this administration is not going to be any help.

  18. ToddInNorway says:

    The solution is to promote an energy source that will outcompete coal in safety, health, environmental and economic impacts. In the coal belt there are vast shale gas resources that are ready to do this job. Renewables are not enough in this area. There is simply not enough wind and sun to replace the coal power industry in place today in this region. Shale gas is already a major source of energy in urban areas in Texas and is still growing, and is developing rapidly in parts of Pennsylvania, and it can work in Ohio, New York state and the Appalachias. And yes shale gas needs lots of workers to run the drilling rigs and associated systems and processes, so this will absorb most if not all the unemployed coal workers.

  19. The Japanese sank the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor and Don Blankenship is sinking the state after which it was named, shame on him.

    Consider also the role of JPMorgan Chase – financiers who back Massey Energy in its MTR activities – shame on them too.

    Thanks to Karl Burkart for describing the role of JPMorgan Chase in an interview with Kevin Grandia:

    http://www.xool.tv/climatetv/archive/TyVCMSVFRg==/Kevin-Grandia-%26amp%3B-Karl-Burkart-Apr-7-2010

    Article on JPMorgan Chase at Mother Jones:

    http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/03/jpmorgan-mountaintop-removal-mining

  20. Bob Wallace says:

    “The Obama administration is very pro coal and it is signaling a lax attitude.”

    “One is left stunned. Is this payback for WV going for Hillary? Just let the state rot with more MTR and mine accidents?”

    I’m left stunned by your post.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    “There is simply not enough wind and sun to replace the coal power industry in place today in this region.”

    There is some wind potential in the northeast portion of West Virginia. And there is plenty of summer sun to take care of summer peak needs.

    But you’re right. There’s not enough wind or sun to replace the coal *industry*. I can’t see enough jobs coming from renewables to hire all the people currently involved in extracting and shipping coal.

    So what do we do? Keep mining and burning coal, thus endangering the future of everyone or make life tougher for a few?

  22. Chris Dudley says:

    Bob,

    In the long run, you are probably right that jobs in renewable energy will be fewer than in fossil fuel extraction. The energy return on energy invested is higher with renewables so likely the amount of jobs follows that number: more energy for less effort.

    But you are wrong about the present. First, a rapid replacement of fossil fuels means building out the infrastructure faster than for fossil fuel historically which means a greater number of jobs in the short term. Second, since renewables do not rely on on-going fuel extraction, much more of the effort comes up front. A coal plant and the rail between the plant and the mine need to be constructed to start producing electricity, but then the trains have to run and the mine has to run for the whole life of the power plant. Wind or solar, you install the equipment and them pretty much let it run for twenty years. A much larger fraction of the effort is immediate. That means jobs a compressed in time and are thus greater in number at the beginning.

    In #20: Dead miners are a blot on this administration. It comes of being lax about safety.

  23. Bob Wallace says:

    Chris re: job. What I was trying to say is that in those areas where coal is mined it might not be possible to create replacement green jobs.

    Re: this administration and mine safety. If you have any experience running a large organization you must know that it takes time to create change. One does not install new top level administrators and ‘turn the ship’ in the next week or month.

    It takes a while for new top level management to learn their jobs, it takes time for them to get the quality of people they want in positions directly below them, it takes time to understand the strengths and weaknesses, to work out plans of correction, and to implement those plans.

    Should mine safety have been a higher priority for the Department of the Interior than global warming, endangered species, agriculture, etc.? I don’t know.

    (I do know that hindsight is a choice tool of Monday morning quarterbacks. A tool which is never available to the guy running the game when the game is running.)

    I do know that the behavior of this particular coal company goes well back into the previous administration, if not further. If you want to assign all the blame to the current administration, that’s your choice.

    As for your “Is this payback for WV going for Hillary?”

    That is simply disgusting.

  24. Bob Wallace says:

    Chris –

    I found this piece which contains the most details I’ve seen yet of what went wrong leading to this mine disaster.

    I’ve only scanned it so far, need to make some coffee and read it carefully, but it looks to me like the Obama administration started working on the problem. The problem seems to be that the mining companies had been fighting regulations by clogging up the courts with legal action.

    The current administration had added another four judges to the initial group of ten in order to work through the mess. Four apparently weren’t enough to fix the problem in time to prevent this event.

    Here’s a couple of paragraphs from the piece…

    “At the congressional hearing in February, Rep. George Miller angrily declared that “delays from growing appeals are undermining MSHA’s ability to impose tougher sanctions on the repeat violators… If cases are stuck for months or years in the review commission, MSHA cannot impose stronger penalties on the worst mine operators. As a result, miners’ lives are in the cross hairs.”

    But the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, defended the companies, arguing that “it appears mine operators are simply adapting to a punitive new regulatory environment that favors litigation and conflict over collaboration.””

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/09/obama-administration-miss_n_532386.html

    I’d like to hear your take….

  25. Bob

    In my humble opinion (from not being of US nationality) those lawyers aiding and abetting these appeals by Massey and others against the tighter legislation already in place should be subject to legal action themselves when, if ever, true justice prevails. If all this fails then once again that famous declaration is shown as not worth the paper on which it is written.

    One of Jules Verne’s novels, ‘Black Diamonds” based upon the trade of death and intimidation behind coal extraction. Verne wrote over fifty novels, I read most of them as a kid – worth a revisit.

  26. Bob Wallace says:

    No, Lionel, I have to disagree.

    Innocent or guilty, we need the ability to acquire expert help to guide us through the legal process. We could say that the guilty should be denied legal counsel, but how do we know who is guilty until they have been tried?

    That said, recognize that attorneys operate within a set of rules which determine what they can do and not do and still maintain their attorney status. If your attorney knowingly helps you plan a crime then they become part of the criminal activity and loose their protected status.

    They can tell you what the rules are, advise you that what you are intending to do breaks the law and what the consequences would be, but if they go further they become partners in the illegal activity.

  27. Bob

    I was not at all suggesting that due legal process be circumvented.