After 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.
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
Blankenship 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
Three 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” 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]
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.
,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.