[Marxism] West Virginia Coal Country Sees New Era as Donald Blankenship Is Indicted
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 1 10:49:33 MST 2014
NY Times, Dec. 1 2014
West Virginia Coal Country Sees New Era as Donald Blankenship Is Indicted
By TRIP GABRIEL
WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — On a memorial to West Virginia’s most recent mining
disaster, the silhouettes of 29 figures are etched into black granite,
men posed with arms around each another like teammates.
On the back of the solemn slab, the disaster is put in the context of
the state’s long history of coal tragedies, including a 1968 explosion
that killed scores, and a dozen other deadly events earlier in the century.
In not one of those cases did a coal mine owner face criminal charges
for the loss of life. That history ended in November, with the
indictment of Donald L. Blankenship, the chief executive whose company
owned the Upper Big Branch mine near here, where an explosion of methane
gas in 2010 spread like a fireball through more than two miles of
tunnels, feeding on illegally high levels of coal dust.
Legal experts call the case against Mr. Blankenship, a figure both
feared and renowned for his power in West Virginia, a turning point
after a century in which the power of coal barons over politicians,
courts and the economy protected them.
“Those responsible for managing mines in a way that caused multiple
deaths were never held responsible,” said Patrick McGinley, a law
professor at West Virginia University. “It shocks the conscience.”
The Charleston Gazette, a newspaper with a history of reporting on
coal’s costs to the state, said simply, “This indictment is momentous.”
Neither Mr. Blankenship nor his attorney, William W. Taylor III,
responded to requests for comments. But in a statement after the
indictment, Mr. Taylor defended Mr. Blankenship: “His outspoken
criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will
not yield to their effort to silence him.”
Mr. Blankenship, who was raised in a trailer in one of the state’s
poorest counties, rose to the top of Massey Energy, the largest coal
producer in Appalachia. He was accused by federal prosecutors of
trampling on health and safety laws to maximize profits, conspiring to
hide the violations from inspectors and lying on securities filings. He
faces up to 31 years in prison.
He has denied wrongdoing, arguing in a blog he set up to rebut his
critics that he always promoted worker safety. “If they put me behind
bars,” he wrote last year, “it will be political.”
Paradoxically, Mr. Blankenship’s own political influence has played out
on an epic scale. His manipulation of West Virginia’s highest court in a
civil case against him was rebuked by the United States Supreme Court in
2009, and inspired the John Grisham novel “The Appeal.”
Many family members of Upper Big Branch victims feared, in the nearly
five years since the explosion, that Mr. Blankenship would never be held
accountable because of his power and money.
As the United States attorney pursuing the case, R. Booth Goodwin II,
won convictions of four lower-ranking Massey executives, miners’
families and others saw them as scapegoats. “Don Blankenship is a very
powerful person; he won’t see a day in prison, I promise you that,”
Jonathan Hughart, the son of David Hughart, a Blankenship lieutenant
convicted last year, said at the time.
But all along, prosecutors were pressuring top executives to cooperate
and establishing a paper trail tying Mr. Blankenship to daily decisions
at Upper Big Branch. It is meant to refute any claim that he was too
senior to have been involved in the disaster, which a state
investigation traced to a corporate “culture in which wrongdoing became
acceptable, where deviation was the norm.”
The 43-page grand jury indictment paints a portrait of Mr. Blankenship,
64, as a mine boss out of Dickens. He demanded a report every 30 minutes
— including by fax to his home on nights and weekends — tallying up coal
production in a section of Upper Big Branch that was one of the most
profitable, producing $600,000 of coal a day.
Mr. Blankenship overrode managers who sought to strengthen roofs to
prevent cave-ins or install ventilation systems to prevent explosions,
ordering them to ignore “construction jobs” and instead to “run coal.”
After a passageway flooded four feet deep and a federal inspector shut
it down, fearing miners might drown, Mr. Blankenship ordered mining to
continue, scolding the mine’s president for “letting M.S.H.A. run” the
mine, referring to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
When Upper Big Branch did not make its quotas or cut costs deeply
enough, Mr. Blankenship threatened the mine president. “You have a kid
to feed. Do your job,” he wrote. In another note scolding the executive
for not producing enough coal, he wrote: “I could Khrushchev you. Do you
Early in his career, Mr. Blankenship became famous for breaking the grip
of unions at Massey mines. Investigations described a climate of
intimidation at Upper Big Branch in which miners were afraid to report
unsafe practices, and two sets of books were kept to conceal hazards
Levels of coal dust were so high — a threat to human health as well as a
fire accelerant — that autopsies of the dead men found 71 percent had
black lung disease, compared with an industry average of 3.2 percent.
“That is beyond belief,” said Mr. McGinley, the law professor, who
contributed to a 2011 state report.
The report also traced the disaster to the failure of West Virginia
politicians, Democrats and Republicans, to stand up to companies like
Massey, which “used the leverage of the jobs it provided to attempt to
control West Virginia’s political system.”
A prime example was the $3 million that Mr. Blankenship contributed to
defeat a justice on the state’s Supreme Court in 2004, replacing him
with one sympathetic to Massey at a time when the company was appealing
a $50 million judgment against it.
The court overturned the $50 million jury award by a vote of 3 to 2. The
majority included the justice Mr. Blankenship helped elect, as well as
the chief justice, who was photographed vacationing with Mr. Blankenship
four months earlier on the French Riviera. The United States Supreme
Court reversed that ruling, criticizing the state court for an “extreme”
conflict of interest.
Two years before the Upper Big Branch explosion, federal prosecutors
declined to bring charges against Mr. Blankenship in an accident with
similar circumstances at a mine in Logan County, over the objections of
the widows of two men killed.
The case was taken as a lesson by the incoming United States attorney,
Mr. Goodwin, who took over just after the Upper Big Branch disaster,
according to a federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition
of anonymity because a judge had ordered all parties to the case,
including relatives of the miners, not to talk about it publicly.
On the fourth anniversary of the explosion, in an expensive public
relations push, Mr. Blankenship paid for a 51-minute video casting
himself as a champion of miners’ safety. Sen. Joe Manchin of West
Virginia, who appeared on camera, later said he had been tricked and
called the video “propaganda.”
Mr. Blankenship argues that the deadly explosion, on April 5, 2010, was
caused by a natural “inundation” of methane gas. State investigators
found no evidence for this theory.
On Nov. 21, he pleaded not guilty in federal court in Beckley, W.Va. A
trial date was set for Jan. 26. Mr. Blankenship, who retired from Massey
shortly before it was acquired in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources, was
ordered to remain in southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky.
Although Mr. Blankenship now lives in Las Vegas, his primary residence
was once in Mingo County, where he grew up and built a mansion with a
helipad in one of West Virginia’s poorest communities. He piped in clean
drinking water to his home even as neighbors sued Massey for poisoning
the local wells.
Bruce Stanley, a lawyer who grew up in Mingo County and has squared off
against Massey in court, said there was a flaw in Mr. Blankenship’s
creed of economic survival of the fittest. “Here’s a guy who did indeed
pull himself up by his bootstraps,” he said. “You ask yourself, at what
expense? Don’s the very guy who put his neighbors out of work, who’s
driven his local community into the bottom of the bottom of the
livability standards of the Western Hemisphere.”
In Whitesville, Jerry Mollohan, 64, a retired miner, called the
indictment “long overdue.” He said that after a former security director
from the mine, Hughie Elbert Stover, was sentenced to jail last year, he
feared that would be as far as prosecutors reached. Mr. Blankenship was
“more like a dictator than a manager,” he said. “I hope his political
power won’t get him off.”
People in town sometimes refer to the explosion as “the incident,” and
avoid mentioning the former Massey boss. The memorial to the tragedy is
hard against the Big Coal River, easy to speed past on Route 3. The
closest building is a library. Last week, LaDonna Foster, the librarian,
called Mr. Blankenship “the man whose name we don’t speak.”
More information about the Marxism