Don Blankenship was more than just another West Virginia coal operator. He became a national symbol of industrial and political arrogance.
His mines incurred an astounding number of safety violations, but he plunged forward — until a terrible explosion killed 29 miners at his Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County in 2010.
This week, a federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on four charges, three felonies and one misdemeanor. After four years of investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that Blankenship conspired to cause willful violations of ventilation and coal dust control rules, led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations, hindered federal enforcement efforts and made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and to investors about Massey Energy’s safety practices.
Four separate investigations found that lax safety diligence caused a methane “pop” to trigger a bigger coal dust explosion. Four mine officials were found to have rigged reports or faked tests.
Through it all, Blankenship has called himself a safety champion, and even made a documentary film trying to prove it. The company’s safety record says otherwise.
After the indictment, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., declared:
“In my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”
A key paragraph in Thursday’s U.S. indictment alleges:
“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations . . . . Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
This indictment is momentous.
A common refrain after a worker dies is that coal mining is dangerous work. Accidents happen. The implication is that deaths cannot be helped.
Generations of coal mining experience shows that accidents happen more when safety laws are forgotten, ignored, or subverted. Indeed, safety rules are born out of past tragedies. People analyze what happened and determine safer ways to do the work. But those rules cannot work if they are not followed.
And they are not followed too often. Also this week, NPR’s Howard Berkes reported that 2,700 mine company owners have failed to pay nearly $70 million in delinquent penalties for safety violations during the last 20 years. Companies that feel no penalty keep violating. Mines that don’t pay their penalties — at least one measure of mines that don’t follow the rules — are more dangerous than mines that do pay, with injury rates 50 percent higher, the NPR report found.
The U.S. attorney’s willingness to pursue this investigation shows that coal miners dying in an unsafe mine is not allowed to pass simply as a cost of doing business.