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Friday, 14 November 2014 06:58

Finally a Member of the Oligarchy Is Indicted for Culpability in Worker Deaths: 29 Coal Miners Killed

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MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

coalminingdisPhoto of graves of miners from another disaster, the Sago Mine explosion in 2006. (Photo: Nancy)

A member of the oligarchy is finally being held criminally responsible for worker deaths.

Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy (King Coal in West Virginia), was just indicted for putting profits above the lives of his company's employees resulting in a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Those are among the charges contained in a federal indictment announced on November 13 by the Department of Justice. According to the West Virginia MetroNews Network,

The 43-page four-count federal indictment of former Massey Energy president and CEO Don Blankenship portrays an operator obsessive about upping production at the cheapest cost. Federal prosecutors allege it was an attitude that led to the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County that killed 29 miners.

The indictment, announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, alleges Blankenship knew about UBB’s safety problems and the practice of alerting supervisors underground when federal mine inspectors arrived at UBB for inspections. It’s also alleged he lied to the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission about mine safety in the days after the April 5, 2010 explosion in an attempt to help Massey’s stock price.

Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud....

The indictment alleges Blankenship was driven by the numbers and in doing so ignored dozens of safety violations at UBB and covered up others. Federal prosecutors said from April 3, 2009, to April 5, 2010, Blankenship received 249 daily safety violation reports from the UBB mines but did very little to correct the problems.

One can read the specific details of Blankenship's alleged culpability in the actual federal indictment. It is entitled the United States of America v. Donald Blankenship, which in its stark official appearance provides hope that members of the plutocracy can be at least occasionally held accountable for putting profit over lives. Think of the miners who died and how their deaths rippled out to impact families, friends and communities. The human beings and their connections held, the indictment implies, no value to Blankenship.

Just re-read this section from the news report: "The indictment alleges Blankenship was driven by the numbers and in doing so ignored dozens of safety violations at UBB and covered up others. Federal prosecutors said from April 3, 2009, to April 5, 2010, Blankenship received 249 daily safety violation reports from the UBB mines but did very little to correct the problems." The indictment accuses Blankenship of lying to federal officials and stockholders about these "willful violations of safety laws" at the mine.

Federal prosecutors charge Blankenship with brute indifference to ensuring a safe working environment, including this criminal allegation:

Blankenship’s imposition and aggressive enforcement of coal-production quotas that deprived UBB’s coal miners of the time they needed to construct and maintain ventilation control structures, and that forced them to operate even where air quantities were below legal minimums; Blankenship’s direction, addressed below, not to construct certain ventilation controls that would produce more reliable airflow because constructing them diverted time from coal production; and Blankenship’s denial, also addressed below, of a request to construct an airshaft at UBB that would have increased airflow to areas of the mine where it was often below the legal minimum.

Blankenship, who is no longer CEO of Massey (which was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources corporation), was paid nearly $18 million dollars in 2009. During his tenure as CEO of Massey, Blankenship ensured strong financial backing for Republican candidates - and was repeatedly accused of trying to buy the West Virginia Supreme Court through campaign contributions (supreme court judges are elected in West Virginia) and even vacationing with at least one of them.

In a Senate hearing on the Upper Big Branch deaths - held on May 20 of 2010 - Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) read from a 2005 Blankenship internal email to administrators, as Blankenship sat before the committee:

In a memo from you, dated October 19th, 2005, you told your company's deep mine superintendents that running coal is the top priority in the mines. Here's a quote: “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal - i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs or whatever - you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills, end quote.”

Harkin added, directly refuting Blankenship, "That doesn't sound like putting safety first to me."

Blankenship is a nasty piece of work, even in the pitiless exploitative business of coal mining, but his outlook on profits before lives is not uncommon in the extraction industry and in corporations in general. Now, in the global "free trade" economy, companies are exporting that indifference to the primacy of life to sweat shop labor in nations such as Bangladesh (textiles) and China (hi-technology).

No one can bring back the lives of 29 miners who worked in grimy unsafe conditions, but the indictment is, for a moment, a glint of justice flashing through the overcast clouds of immunity for corporate outlaws.

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