Sen. Joe Manchin said he didn’t know all the facts before appearing in a film funded by former coal executive Don Blankenship about “what really happened” at the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
In a statement released Monday, Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was told the film was about mine safety, and never would have participated had he known Blankenship — who ran Massey Energy at the time 29 miners died in the explosion — was funding the project.
“I am not only livid that I was lied to, but I am even more enraged that Don Blankenship would manipulate a tragedy to promote himself and his own agenda,” Manchin said.
Blankenship recently told the Daily Mail he was funding a “documentary to explain what happened at UBB and to hopefully help avoid it happening again.” He released the project Monday — days before the four-year anniversary of the explosion — at the website www.ubbneveragain.com. The web address redirects visitors to www.DonBlankenship.com.
Soon after the April 5, 2010 explosion, families of victims and others in the community blamed Blankenship and Massey leadership. Blankenship resigned from Massey in late 2010 and continues to maintain he did nothing illegal.
He didn’t immediately return a Daily Mail request for comment.
Reports from the state, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and J. Davitt McAteer — a former coal official under President Bill Clinton — all say poor ventilation and coal dust build-up led to the fatal explosion. In addition, they say Massey has a poor safety track record and Blankenship spearheaded a culture that put profits before safety.
Blankenship has repeatedly disputed those findings. In the film Blankenship says MSHA essentially forced the mine to have a ventilation system that provided less air. This, and a build-up of natural gas, not Massey safety issues, led to the explosion, his film claims.
He’s stated these beliefs publicly, including a recent interview with radio talk show host Hoppy Kercheval. In the film, he relies on “independent experts” who essentially argue that his version of events isn’t impossible. The film includes at least two former Massey executives, including company founder E. Morgan Massey.
Manchin and Blankenship had several political and legal battles before UBB. Although he drew criticism for accepting a ride on Massey’s private plane to return from Florida immediately after the explosion, Manchin — then governor — eventually hired McAteer to conduct the independent investigation.
In the film released Monday though, Blankenship seems to use Manchin’s comments to bolster his argument.
In the segment, Blankenship talks about the need to learn from “accidents” and again asserts that experts agree the UBB disaster came as a result of a natural gas explosion. Unless people accept it was caused by natural gas and get away from the “political agenda,” Blankenship says, there’s no way to improve mine safety and prevent future disasters.
“We can sit here and blame the sins of the past or we can try to fix it, and I’d rather try to fix it ... because I can’t go back in time and change it,” Manchin says immediately after Blankenship’s statements.
Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott said the company that made the film, Adroit Films, interviewed the senator early last week. He reiterated Manchin’s statements that they never told anyone they were working on Blankenship’s behalf.
Adroit Films is based in Chesapeake, Va. The first film listed under the company’s “portfolio” section is called “American Common Sense,” which was made for Blankenship’s website. The company did not respond to a Daily Mail request for comment.
Although the website says it doesn’t have that particular film anymore, a YouTube search quickly provided the 10-minute project. The film mainly consists of Blankenship talking about his views of the country.
“In the research we did on the company we did not find any red flags or anything associated with Don Blankenship,” Kott said.
MSHA declined to participate in the film. Narrator Charlie Glaize — who’s done voice over work for conservative political campaigns and many other clients, according to his website — says MSHA didn’t want to comment after it learned Blankenship was funding the film. The film shows an email it says is from an MSHA representative, stating the agency wouldn’t comment after information provided by the filmmaker apparently showed Blankenship was funding the project.
MSHA representative Jess Lawder confirmed the agency didn’t participate in the film, but couldn’t immediately confirm whether the agency knew about Blankenship funding it.
“With regards to the video, we stand by the findings in our accident investigation report. Our findings were consistent with numerous other reports with regards to the events that led to 29 miners losing their lives at Upper Big Branch mine,” Lawder said.
In his statement, Manchin said he plans to “every legal resource” against Adroit. He also said Blankenship should be more worried about the ongoing federal criminal investigation into the disaster than “filming a propaganda documentary.”
“The most tragic part of all of this is that the families of these miners are forced to suffer yet again at the hands of Don Blankenship,” Manchin said.
Gary and Patty Quarles lost their son Gary Wayne in the explosion. The elder Gary, who spent 34 years underground as a miner, says he remembers another Massey executive, Chris Adkins, walking over to him and Patty the night of the explosion to tell them their son died.
Gary Quarles said Blankenship was 10 feet away when Adkins told worried family members the explosion was far worse than originally believed.
“He stood there and he looked straight ahead,” Quarles said, talking about Blankenship.
“And his eyes never moved, they never wandered.”
He and his wife knew Blankenship was making the film. They tried to stop it, but learned they couldn’t.
Gary Quarles said inspectors, state and federal officials and others at Massey all could be to blame.
But he’s confident Blankenship should go to jail.
“We’re trying to move on. We will never forget, we lost everything that meant anything to us. We’re just trying to go on with our own lives,” Quarles said.
“We don’t care what he says.”
The film ends with a montage of pictures of the 29 miners who lost their loved ones in the explosion. Blankenship says the project was made in their honor.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.