[Marxism] West Virginia Coal Country Sees New Era as Donald Blankenship Is Indicted

Louis Proyect 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 
understand?”

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 
from inspectors.

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.”




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