Photo via ABC News
The Man Behind the West Virginia Coal Mine Tragedy?
With all of the information that continues to be revealed after the tragic accident at the mine killed 25, it's hard not to start pointing fingers at the man in charge. And in this case, it's easier than usual to do so--Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owns the coal mine, seems to have modeled his job after the very caricature of a villainous corporate tycoon. After finally facing some overdue scrutiny, it's been revealed that Blankenship has a long history of ignoring dangerous violations in his mines, putting profit before worker safety, and being flat-out rude to the families of his deceased employees. Basically, if you were ever looking for someone to epitomize that seemingly-overblown stereotype of the evil-doing corporate baron, you don't come much closer than Blankenship.
After all, there were over 3,000 violations--amounting to $2 million in fines--cited on his mine where the explosion killed 25 of his employees. And news has just been broken that the mine was warned that it had a 'potential pattern of violations' a whole two years ago, but managed to escape federal oversight. So Blankenship did nothing, because doing nothing is cheaper--he has a well documented habit of ignoring regulations and violations.
And that's just this one mine! Massey energy has a slew of safety violations at mines across Appalachia.
As you can see in this graph, Blankenship would rather contest the violations than fix them--and so he left the violations in place, putting his profit margins ahead of worker safety (Chart via Think Progress):
Don't believe that Blankenship regards safety violations as nothing but a nuisance? Watch this:
Yup, he just said that: "There's so many of the laws that are, if you will, nonsensical from an engineering or a coal mining viewpoint. A lot of the politicians, they get emotional, as does the public, about the most recent accident . . ." Those laws, of course, are designed to prevent accidents like this one from occurring. All this, a cold, calculated approach that puts human life below profit, has contributed to Grist calling Blankenship the "7th Scariest Person in America"
And here are two more examples of the coal baron's attitude towards worker safety, via Brad Johnson:
THE FATAL ARACOMA MINE FIRE of 2006Finally, putting icing on the corporate greed-cake, is the fact that after the explosion, not Blankenship nor any other superiors came forward to tell the families about the deaths--they had to learn it from the news. In fact, his habitual mistreatment of workers and their families lead to this scene when Blankenship finally got around to making a statement, according to the New York Times:
Blankenship Branded Deadly Fire At Dangerous Aracoma Mine "Statistically Insignificant." [!!!] In the most egregious case of preventable death before the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to "plead guilty to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and pay $2.5 million in criminal fines" after two workers died in a fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, West Virginia. Massey also paid $1.7 million in civil fines. The mine "had 25 violations of mandatory health and safety laws" before the fire on January 19, 2006, but Massey CEO Don Blankenship passed the deaths off as "statistically insignificant." [Logan Banner, 9/1/06; Charleston Gazette, 12/24/08]
Federal Mine Inspector Who Wanted To Shut Down Mine Told To "Back Off." Days before fire broke out in the Aracoma mine, a federal mine inspector tried to close down that section of the mine, but "was told by his superior to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal." Massey failed to notify authorities of the fire until two hours after the disaster. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4/23/06]
Some of these tensions boiled over around 2 a.m. Tuesday when Mr. Blankenship arrived at the mine to announce the death toll to families who were gathered at the site. Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners' lives.Blankenship is indeed a pretty terrifying man--one of those rare cases where the villainous stereotype fits the bill closer than anyone would ever really like to see. We like to think, you see, that such greed mongers are the stuff of fiction and Jimmy Stewart films. But not in Blankenship's case. He is, as Grist would put it, "a really bad dude."
More on West Virginia Mine
West Virginia Mine Operator Escaped Extra Federal Oversight Despite Numerous Violations
West Virginia Coal Mine Tragedy: Site Where 25 Died Had 57 Safety Violations this Month