Coal baron Don Blankenship goes Chris Christie, absolves himself in death of 29 miners

  • Published on April 3rd, 2014

By Meteor Blades

The notorious Don Blankenship, former CEO of A.T. Massey, the sixth largest coal operator in the United States, showed up Monday in the offices of Bloomberg/Businessweek to promote his new, self-funded documentary video. The video was timed for release to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the explosion in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine on April 5, 2010. Twenty-nine of the 31 miners were killed.

According to reporters Paul M. Barrett and Justin Bachman, Blankenship’s purpose in the 51-minute documentary—Upper Big Branch: Never Again—is “absolving himself of blame and spewing venom toward regulators and political enemies.”

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, one of the coal mining industry’s best friends, called the video “propaganda” Monday. The Democratic senator said the makers, Adroit Films, “lied to my face and told me this documentary was focused on mine safety, an issue I have been committed to since the Farmington Mine disaster that killed my uncle and 77 miners.”

In the video, Blankenship and various experts claim the most deadly mine explosion in four decades was the consequence of an unexpected release of natural gas. “I don’t think any coal company had ever focused on a natural-gas release,” Blankenship said. He told the Bloomberg/Businessweek reporters that the video was produced to warn industry of such natural-gas releases and spur regulators to improve mine safety.
Riiiiiight. Because safety was always Don Blankenship’s number one priority.

That’s why he wrote a now infamous memo in 2005, five years after he took over as the CEO of A.T Massey: “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.”

That’s why, as NPR reported in 2011:

Mine owner Massey Energy kept two sets of records that chronicled safety problems. One internal set of production reports detailed those problems and how they delayed coal production. But the other records, which are reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards. Some of the hazards that were not disclosed are identical to those believed to have contributed to the explosion.

Safety considerations weren’t why Blankenship was paid $17.8 million during his last full year as CEO for the company.After the Upper Big Branch disaster, there were several investigations, including that of the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.

That state report found, among other things, that the parts of the mine affected by the explosion had not been treated for coal dust because entryways and tunnels were too small to fit the machine used to spray coal dust neutralizer. It also pointed out that methane readings taken soon after the explosion showed there was too little natural gas to support the claim Massey made at the time and repeated in the Blankenship film that an unexpected release of natural gas had caused the disaster.

The number of deaths was out of the ordinary but the attitude that caused them was not.

From the governor’s report:

Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.

The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety.

Since Blankenship is clearly interested in promoting fiction from his new digs in Las Vegas, perhaps next time he commissions filmmakers, he should get Russell Crowe or Val Kilmer to play himself.

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.