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.
“It’s hugely significant, not just in the coal industry, for industry in general,” Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told TPM. “Finally, finally, the head of a company that has willfully violated working safety laws has been called to account.”
Mourners hold a memorial vigil for the miners who died at the Upper Big Branch mine. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta).
The hope among worker-safety advocates is that the indictment is “a sign of things to come,” Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University who served on the independent state panel that investigated the disaster, told TPM.
“To me, as I read it, it seemed really historical,” she said. “Here we have an example, the first example, of recognition that you may be held accountable for the decisions you make.”
But, perhaps paradoxically, it is as much an indictment of the system as of Blankenship, Smith added. It took the deaths of 29 people for the U.S. Justice Department to pursue such a senior corporate figure. If Blankenship is convicted — he has pleaded not guilty and asserted his innocence — he could spend 31 years in prison, but more of that time would come from lying to federal officials than violating the federal rules designed to keep miners safe.
“I think it does point out, however, that the mine safety and health law needs more teeth than it has now,” Smith said. “When someone is accused of doing the things he did … those are the things that eventually caused the deaths of 29 people. Yet, the penalty for those things is just a couple years. The penalty for lying to investors is 20 years. Somehow, that just seems like it’s backwards.”
The federal Mine Safety and Health Act, as well as the broader Occupational Safety and Health Act, allows only for misdemeanor charges if willfully committed safety violations lead to a worker’s death and the financial criminal penalties for worker accidents are often minimal. (Civil penalties of $10.8 million were levied against Massey Energy for the accident.)
“I think that there is a misperception in the public that we have these really strong laws. If people get injured or God forbid killed on the job, then there’s a penalty for that,” Monforton said, “and that’s just not the case.”
At least not now. But Monforton and others are hoping that the Blankenship indictment will change that. It outlines in striking detail how Massey Energy ducked federal inspectors and the degree to which Blankenship maintained tight control over every aspect of the operation.
Over the period that federal investigators examined, from January 2008 to shortly after the April 2010 accident, the Upper Big Branch mine was cited 835 times for violating federal mine safety standards. The mine “ranked among the worst mines in the United States” in shutdown orders, prosecutors said. It also generated more than $330 million in revenue for Massey in 2009, 14 percent of the company’s revenue.
The mine’s safety violations, prosecutors said, included poor air flow and ventilation as well as an inadequate number of workers dedicated to safety, Federal officials concluded that explosive materials built up as a result of the safety violations and caused the disaster that killed 29 people.
But beyond the technical violations, there was a culture of corruption that was detailed in the indictment. Prosecutors described a “scheme” in which a guard at the mine’s gate would radio to the main office and warn them that an inspector was coming. The office would then call underground to relay that information to the miners, who would then cover up any evidence of violations. Code words were used to relay the messages.
And Blankenship, prosecutors alleged, was “fully aware” of this and almost every other detail of the mine’s operation, constantly pushing his workers to skirt safety precautions so they could mine more coal.
He received daily reports about the mine’s safety violations and estimates of what they would cost the company, prosecutors allege. Blankenship also asked for and received eeports every 30 minutes for the section of the mine where the accident ultimately happened. He wanted to know the reason for any delays and would chastise his subordinates if they slowed mining for safety reasons.
“You need to … run some coal,” Blankenship said in a memo to one unnamed executive about work being done to comply with safety regulations. “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”
In another handwritten note to the same executive, he called employment of workers tasked with maintaining safety “literally crazy” and “ridiculous,” according to the indictment. The pressure to bring in as much coal as possible at the lowest possible cost was intense.
“In my opinion, children could run these mines better than you all do,” Blankenship said in another memo. “Look at your cost and figure out what you are going to do to get it down because if we don’t have a better August and September than we had July, you can be assured that the stock options are not going to look very attractive.”
“Please be reminded that your core job is to make money,” he wrote in yet another memo before the accident, while adding that: “I’m looking to make an example out of somebody and I don’t mean embarrassment.”