Coal mine baron and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners were killed in an explosion in 2010, shares his thoughts on mine safety. Understand that Blankenship is famous for his contempt for safety regulations. In fact, Blankenship’s overall behavior leads one to the word “psychopath.”
At the center of this, one of the most spectacular acts of geographic and cultural self-immolation ever undertaken by a free country, is Massey CEO Don Blankenship, the highest paid executive in the coal industry. He’s a West Virginia native, from Mingo County, the son of a poor single mother. From unremarkable roots he’s ascended the corporate ladder at Massey, made its powerful board his courtesans, ruthlessly suppressed mineworker unions (just 3% of Massey employees remain unionized), threatened and bullied critics, and single-handedly purchased at least one state-wide election — the 2004 race of state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, who had the gall to rule against Massey. During the campaign, McGraw was accused of allowing child rapists to go free and defeated after 12 years of service by a virtually unknown challenger.
The bigger polluters, the multinationals, pour money and effort into polishing their public images and disguising their agendas. Not so a local thug like Blankenship. In 2005, when WV governor Joe Manchin threatened to keep a closer eye on Massey operations, Blankenship sued him in retaliation, represented by Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s lawyer.
Today, Blankenship wields political clout via his grotesquely titled 527 PAC, “…And for the Sake of the Kids,” into which he’s poured millions of dollars of his own money. (When he founded the PAC he promised to start a foundation for the actual kids, but years later that hasn’t happened.) He’s going after the only other liberal Supreme Court judge in WV, and has vowed to shift the balance of power in the state legislature to Republicans. His interest is in maintaining WV’s low taxes, paltry social services, and lax regulatory enforcement. But the attack ads now airing in the state prominently feature abortion, gay marriage, and drunk drivers. Massey has learned something from recent Republican successes.
So what does our good man Blakenship have to say about safety?
An example of our governments misdirected approach to mine safety solutions is provided by an accident that occurred at the then Massey Energy Rockhouse mine in eastern Kentucky. An experienced miner was crushed by a rock while attempting to recover a mining machine that had shut down under an unsupported roof. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) action after the accident was, and usually is, to find someone to vilify as being at fault. Those of you not familiar with mining should note that the continuous miner machine is always out from under supported roof while mining. If the miner machine shuts down due to an electrical problem for example, the government allows electricians to access the continuous miner for repair by building temporary “crib blocks” as roof support. However, the building of “cribs” requires the miners to be slightly beyond the roof bolted line and therefore puts them at greater risk.
For years the government has approved the use of this “cribbing” to access the equipment and to get it trammed back to the supported roof area. But after the Rockhouse accident mentioned above, I challenged the electricians to develop a remote control device that could reengage the tram motor breaker so that no one had to work out beyond supported roof to recover a broken down miner. They successfully did so, and today throughout the industry this remote device frequently prevents miners from having to get in harm’s way. This is the kind of real step honest leaders can take toward making sure that “this never happens again” — if their focus is on avoiding future accidents as opposed to faulting someone for one that has occurred. Simply put, MSHA often acts more like a police force than like safety professionals.
You know, if there’s one thing that the coal industry has proven over the past 150 years, it’s that it really very much cares about the safety of its employees. That’s why coal miners never went out on strike, never joined unions, and never relied on the federal government to protect their safety and health. They never suffered horrible deaths at the hands of their companies. Not at Ludlow. Not at Centralia. And most definitely not at Upper Big Branch.
Listening to an anti-safety plutocrat like Blankenship blather on about safety reminds me of “The Crime of Carelessness,” the National Association of Manufacturers film created response to criticism of factory safety after the Triangle Fire. Because we all know when workers get hurt, it’s their own fault. Or they assumed the risk when they took the job. Or whatever excuse you want so long as corporations never suffer any consequences for their actions.
Also, I just took that photo at the top of this post yesterday. It was very exciting.