In West Virginia, coal miner’s slaughter

Upper Big Branch's owners bought themselves virtual impunity with campaign contributions. The result was tragedy

Topics: Energy,

The high cost of energy in America was paid in human lives this week, with the deaths of more than two dozen miners in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. It’s the worst mine disaster in a quarter of a century.

Upper Big Branch is owned by Massey Energy Co., which operates 47 mines in central Appalachia. According to the Los Angeles Times, it employs nearly 6,000 and in 2009 reported revenues of $2.3 billion, with a net income of $104.4 million. At the center of this week’s catastrophe is Massey’s president and CEO Don Blankenship, a man so reviled nowadays he had to be escorted away by police when he and other company officials tried to address a group of distraught family and friends outside the Upper Big Branch mine in the early morning hours after the explosion. The crowd hurled invective — and a chair.

Blankenship hates unions (Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine), thinks global warming is a figment of our imaginations and that those who do believe in climate change are crazy; supports destructive, mountaintop-removal mining; serves on the board of the conservative, free market U.S. Chamber of Commerce and now, lucky us, shares his pearls of right-wing wisdom via Twitter. “America doesn’t need Green jobs,” he tweeted pithily last month, “but Red, White, & Blue ones.” David Roberts of the environmental magazine Grist described him as “the scariest polluter in the U.S. …The guy is evil and I don’t use that word lightly.”

Just one example of Massey Energy’s earlier history of environmental malfeasance was described in a May 2003 issue of Forbes Magazine:

“In October 2000 the floor of a 72-acre wastewater reservoir built above an abandoned mine in Kentucky collapsed, sending black sludge through the mine and out into a tributary of the Big Sandy River. The sludge killed fish and plants for 36 miles downstream. Water supplies were shut down in several towns for a month. In total, 230 million gallons spilled out, 20 times the volume of the crude oil from the Exxon Valdez. Lawns nearby were covered in as much as 7 feet of muck…

“… The reservoir had shown signs of leaking right before the accident and Massey failed to report that fact to regulators as required, according to the U.S. Mine Safety & Health Administration. The cleanup has cost $58 million so far.”

This week’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster is the latest in a string of environmental and safety-related calamities linked to Massey and Blankenship. In 2008, the company paid a $20 million fine to the Environmental Protection Agency, and that same year, a Massey subsidiary, the Aracoma Coal Co., pled guilty to safety violations and agreed to $4.2 million in civil penalties and criminal fines connected to the 2006 deaths of two miners in a fire. According to the New York Times, “After the fire broke out, the two miners found themselves unable to escape, partly because the company had removed some ventilation controls inside the mine. The workers died of suffocation. Federal prosecutors at the time called it the largest such settlement in the history of the coal industry.”

The Upper Big Branch mine has a long history of violations. Last month alone it was cited by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for 53 safety violations, many of them for inadequate venting of dust and methane and improperly maintained escape passages. Last year, the Times reports, “the number of citations against the mine more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008, and the penalties proposed against the mine more than tripled, to $897,325.” So far, only $168,393 of those fines have been paid. Blankenship’s response? “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” he told a radio interviewer.

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West Virginia and federal laws were toughened after the Sago mine disaster in 2006 that killed 12 men. But as the number of safety citations has increased, so, too, has the number of appeals by the mining companies, and while that long bureaucratic process unfolds, it’s business as usual.

Blankenship and Massey Energy play our political system like a country fiddle, a system corrupted by money and influence. A certified public accountant (he’s actually in the national CPA hall of fame — I’m not kidding), Blankenship apparently sees the world as one big balance sheet, with human life an expendable commodity and — especially if they’re judges or other officials — something to be bought and sold. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says that since 1990, those associated with Massey and its political action committee have given more than $300,000 in campaign contributions to federal candidates. And in 2006, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Blankenship spent more than $100,000 trying to elect pro-business candidates to the West Virginia state Legislature.

But it’s in the courthouse that Blankenship has really tried to spread the wealth. In 2008, photos were published of him wining and dining West Virginia Supreme Court Justice “Spike” Maynard along the Riviera. They were popping corks in Monaco as Massey Energy was before the court appealing a $50 million judgment that had been won by smaller mining companies charging Massey with fraud. Subsequently, Maynard recused himself from the case and was defeated for reelection. Now he’s running for Congress.

Blankenship had better luck when he went on the offensive against West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw, creating a PAC called “And for the Sake of the Kids.” He contributed $3 million and created campaign ads described by USA Today as “venomous.” They made particular hay with a case in which Justice McGraw was part of a majority that voted to free a mentally disturbed child molester, who got a job as a school janitor. McGraw was defeated by Blankenship’s candidate, Brent Benjamin.

When the appeal of the $50 million came before the court, ABC News reports,” Justice Benjamin refused to recuse himself from the case and twice provided the deciding vote in Massey’s favor. The jury verdict against Massey was overturned.” So egregious were Benjamin’s actions that even the current United States Supreme Court, so heavily pro-business in its recent decision-making, was appalled. It ruled that the judge and Blankenship were out of line. Even so — and even with Benjamin finally recusing himself — on a third vote, Massey again won its appeal. When you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.

Meanwhile, miners working for Massey Energy and Blankenship continue to risk their lives deep below the earth, digging out the fuel that helps keep our lights burning at the price of never knowing if the tiniest of sparks will ignite the next fatal explosion.

 Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog.

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

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