Don Blankenship is one of the worst human beings living in the United States today. The CEO of Massey Energy, the horrible safety record in his mines led to the deaths of 29 miners in a coal dust explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010. Blankenship was a micro-manager and prided himself on buying West Virginia politicians and judges, thwarting regulators, intimidating workers into not report safety violations, and implementing not even the most basic safety systems. In other words, Don Blankeship modeled himself after the 19th century coal mine barons who ruled West Virginia as a personal fiefdom.
What’s remarkable, as this New York Times article points out, is that Blankenship is being held accountable by the federal government for his actions. He is under indictment on 4 counts that could lead to 31 years in prison. That might seem as not all that notable–Blankenship is directly responsible for these deaths, especially so because he managed every part of that mine. But it is notable because this has never happened in West Virginia before. Coal operators have long expected to operate their mines and the state as they will. Where the article falls short is in really getting into why the federal government has acted so differently now. I imagine the reason is a Mine Safety and Health Administration and federal prosecutions invigorated by an Obama administration taking issues like regulation and workplace safety seriously. But this part of the equation only addressed obliquely.
I will also note that for all the talk in Appalachia about Obama’s War on Coal and how environmentalists are killing jobs, the coal industry now employs all of 28,000 people in central Appalachia. And while some of that is because of tighter environmental regulations, cheaper natural gas, the movement of the coal industry to the West, and mechanization all play a larger role.