I am going to start today by asking for a little leeway in my post. You see my uncles and cousins have been and are coal miners in West Virginia. To keep my father out of the mines his mother moved the entire family to Michigan when he was an early teen. So when we talk about the (probably) criminal acts of the Massey Energy company I tend to be a little less than objective.
Let’s lay out the facts, shall we? Massey was known for its obsessive focus on production above all else. This obsession came directly from the CEO, Don Blankenship. After he managed to break the union at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine he immediately increased the production quota’s by 70% and moved from three 8 hour shifts to two 12 hour ones.
The saying around the mine about workers was “A man is like a tool. If it gets bent or broken, get rid of it and get a new one”. That is the kind of depraved disregard for workers that is the hall mark of mine run by Don Blankenship.
It is not even close to an isolated incident. Blankenship, who had no background in mining, but was a finance and accounting trained guy, was also the one that wrote the now infamous memo in 1995 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 (i.e. build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.”
Overcasts are a safety measure that keeps air flowing correctly in the mines to avoid the build up of methane and coal dust. Both of these contaminates are highly combustible and are major hazards of coal mining. Basically Blankenship was telling his mine managers that they should ignore the safety recommendations of his engineers and just “run coal”.
Today there is news about the investigation into the disaster at the UBB mine. NPR is reporting that the Federal investigators have found that Massey was lying to them for years. From the NPR story:
Mine owner Massey Energy kept two sets of records that chronicled safety problems. One internal set of production reports detailed those problems and how they delayed coal production. But the other records, which are reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards. Some of the hazards that were not disclosed are identical to those believed to have contributed to the explosion.
Think about that for a second. This company actually had an institutionalized fraud in place to deceive Federal mine safety inspectors. This is a huge deal as it seems that there were conditions similar to the ones believed to have caused the explosion and death of 29 miners, in their hands in advance of the accident.
The investigators are also saying that areas of the mine were not kept wet to keep the highly explosive coal dust from building up because the tunnels or entryways were not cut out of the rock big enough to get the equipment in. This goes directly to the kind of “leadership” that Blankenship was known for; spend as little as possible on everything except getting coal out of the ground. It would have been a minor expense to widen these tunnels and entryways, but it would not have gotten a single piece more of coal out of the mine, so it was not done.
It seems clear now, that there was a criminal conspiracy that running from the top of Massey Energy all the way down to the management of the mine. There is no way for Blankenship to avoid responsibility for this. He is well known for having his hand in all of the decisions at Massey mines. Hell, he had policies in place that required his signature on the authorization for the mine manager to get a tank of gas for his truck, so there is absolutely no way that he was not part of the decisions to cut corners on safety.
This is beyond the kind of Dickensian bastard capitalism that is so en vogue on the Right. This is a criminal activity as part of the business of mining coal. I am waiting for the criminal and possibly RICO charges to start dropping in regards to this incident.
The men that died at UBB were working one of the only good paying jobs in their area. Work in the mines, even when your company is not fattening the bottom line by betting your life, is hard, dirty and dangerous. Working with coal is bad for your health and being an underground miner is always going to have a ton of hazards associated with it.
Still they went to the mines to provide for their families. They worked 12 hour shifts to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. The reasonable and rational safety measures that Blankenship has always decried were undercut at every turn, but short of going to another mine (a dicey proposition since Massey regularly black-balled miners who were in unions or complained at all their mines) or getting out of coal mining and trying to find other work, work that is not always available in West Virginias coal mining region.
There can be no doubt that Blankenship, and much of Massey Energy’s management has blood on their hands. Other mines that follow the rules do not have these kinds of problems, it is the mines that have owners who rail against safety regulations that are the ones with memorials to dead miners near them.
What does remain to be seen is how criminally culpable these people are. I hope that we see these people charged with the crimes (for crimes they are, just the keeping of two sets of books is a crime) that lead the deaths of working men. It is this kind of depraved indifference to workers lives that started the Union movement in the Appalachians. When it was 100% clear to the miners that the company men would not walk across the street to piss on them if they were on fire, that is when the value of a Union was clear.
It is hard to revitalize a labor movement that has been under attack and in decline for a long time, but if there is any justice, if there is anything that can be considered positive in the loss of 29 miners, then maybe the revelations of exactly how little Don Blankenship and Massey Energy cared about them will lead to a resurgence in unionization of coal mines.
Personally, I will settle for that rat-fuck bastard Blankenship spending the rest of his life breaking rocks in some prison yard. I know we don’t do that any more, but for old “run coal and nothing else” Blankenship I’d bring the practice back.
The floor is yours.