Donald Blankenship, in some ways the personification of Big Coal, is finally going to trial after 29 of his miners died in a horrific accident four years ago.
In the unprecedented indictment released by federal prosecutors, the man who has dismissed climate change as "silly" and once described American capitalism as "survival of the most productive" allegedly chastised his subordinates for worrying about safety -- "Now is not the time" -- and threatened their jobs if they didn't hit production targets.
Blankenship, who, as the New York Times reported this week, grew up poor in West Virginia before rising to become one of the most powerful coal bosses in the United States, came to typify all the worst caricatures of ruthless industrialists. He broke unions. He dismissed federal regulations and dared inspectors to catch him in the act. He described his industry in evolutionary terms.
"It's like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest. Unions, communities, people -- everybody's gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive," he said in the 1980s.
But with the death of 29 miners in the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia, Blankenship's long run may finally have come to an end. He was indicted last month on conspiracy to willfully violate federal mining regulations before the accident and to defraud the United States by making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission in its aftermath.
The indictment lays bare the inner workings of the industry as Blankenship allegedly reminded subordinates that their "core job is to make money" and called efforts to comply with safety regulations "literally crazy." A system was allegedly created to cover up safety violations before federal inspectors came to the scene, and Blankenship allegedly urged his workers to "run more coal" no matter what safety issues had been raised.
For those close to the industry, the significance of Blankenship's indictment cannot be overstated. The Charleston Gazette called it "momentous." The Times noted that no other corporate head had ever been indicted after the loss of life at their mines.
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