Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship said Friday he wants the Trump administration’s Department of Labor to revisit its investigation and report on the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in Raleigh County.
Blankenship said Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration should dig into the matter as soon as President Donald Trump appoints an assistant secretary to run the agency to “get the union mindset out of there,” an apparent reference to Obama MSHA chief Joe Main, who previously had been safety director for the United Mine Workers union.
The remarks came on the West Virginia MetroNews program “Talkline,” as Blankenship continued a news media tour this week following his release Wednesday from federal custody after completing a one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch over a 15-month period prior to the deadly explosion.
“I would hope that Trump and whoever he appoints would have that intention,” Blankenship said, when asked by radio host Hoppy Kercheval if he would ask the Trump administration to revisit MSHA’s conclusions about what caused the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said, “Until Mr. Blankenship makes such a request directly to MSHA, it would be premature to respond.”
Blankenship also has indicated, through his defense team, that he will file a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his conviction.
Such an appeal is a long shot, given how few cases the Supreme Court agrees to hear annually. With Blankenship’s prison term over, an appeal would be symbolic, but it also would be another venue for Blankenship to push his theories about the mine disaster and a potential opportunity for President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice to re-examine legal theories of the prosecution that have drawn strong criticism from coal industry trade associations, including the West Virginia Coal Association.
In his news media appearances this week, Blankenship continued what he had started on his Twitter feed Wednesday: a reprise of his arguments that he was prosecuted because of a conspiracy among Democratic political leaders and his theories about what he believes caused the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster — both issues that Blankenship did not raise as legal arguments when he appealed his conviction to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Investigations by MSHA, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and the UMW agreed that the disaster was caused by a longtime pattern of safety violations by Massey and by Blankenship’s insistence that the company put coal production and profits ahead of safety protections for miners.
Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and longtime mine safety expert, said there’s no reason for MSHA to re-examine its report on Upper Big Branch.
“MSHA should not re-open its investigation unless there is some new and compelling evidence, which seems highly unlikely, given the amount of time put into the accident investigation and the thoroughness of that investigation,” Oppegard said.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the UMW, agreed.
“Every credible investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster reached the same conclusion: that this disaster was rooted in Massey Energy’s culture of production first, safety last,” Smith said.
“Massey management at UBB failed to maintain the equipment properly, which caused the longwall shearer to throw sparks, which ignited methane gas that was present only because the company failed to maintain adequate ventilation,” Smith said. “That methane gas ignition then caused float coal dust — which was present in excessive amounts only because the company failed to adequately rock-dust the mine — to explode.
“At each of those steps, basic safety practices put in place by a company that chose to follow the law would have prevented this disaster,” Smith said. “But that was not Massey’s corporate policy. As directed by Don Blankenship, Massey mine managers were encouraged to put production before safety, thereby putting its workers at daily risk. UBB was the inevitable result of that deliberate policy.”
Blankenship insists that political leaders and the news media have conspired to cover up MSHA’s role in the mine disaster.
However, numerous news reports, along with the report by McAteer’s team and a review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, outlined how MSHA did not use all of its enforcement tools at Upper Big Branch. The reports also said MSHA failed to properly follow up on several near-miss methane incidents at the mine in the years before the disaster and even blocked uncomfortable questions McAteer’s team tried to ask during the disaster investigation.
“Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down for an explosion of this magnitude to occur,” the McAteer report on UBB concluded. “Such total and catastrophic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm.
“In such a culture, it was acceptable to mine coal with insufficient air, with buildups of coal dust, with inadequate rock dust,” the report said. “The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image to mislead the public, community and investors — the perception that the company exceeded industry standards. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety.
“It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.