American Tragedy Unfolds at Upper Big Branch Mine
April 7, 2010
(ChattahBox)— Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the company that owns the W.V. mine that exploded leaving 25 dead, four presumed dead and two severely injured, is known for amassing unprecedented numbers of serious safety violations and fines. A 2005 memo to workers ordering them to ignore their bosses’ demands to perform safety-related tasks, such as building roof supports, read “ignore them and run coal.” “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” Blankenship wrote. That memo says it all. Production is a priority and the story of Massey Energy’s safety record is chronicled by the 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines, issued last year alone. And the Appalachian miners are not protected by union contracts. Blankenship ran off the unions from his mines a long time ago. The deadly explosion that occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine is an American tragedy that didn’t have to happen.
Rescue workers continue to drill through the collapsed Upper Big Branch mine to reach the four trapped miners. The methane gas choking the air is so combustible, that rescuers won’t be able to enter the mine, until the shaft is ventilated sometime late Wednesday night. But the explosion was so violent, there is little hope that the four missing miners are alive.
Meanwhile, family members wait for their loved ones’ bodies to be identified and they are becoming frustrated with the slow process. Blankenship, not a beloved figure under the best of circumstances, arrived to speak with grieving family members late Tuesday night, surrounded by a contingent of at least a dozen police officers. According to the scene as described by The NY Times:
“Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives. After another Massey official informed the crowd of the new death toll, one miner threw a chair. A father and son stormed off screaming that they were quitting mining work. And several people yelled at Mr. Blankenship that he was to blame before he was escorted from the scene.”
Critics of Blankenship’s hard-driving business practices, accuse him of not learning from the mistakes made in the 2006 Aracoma Coal Company fire that killed two miners:
“In 2008, the Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey, agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties and to plead guilty to several safety violations related to a 2006 fire that killed two miners at a coal mine in Logan, W.Va. After the fire broke out, the two miners found themselves unable to escape, partly because the company had removed some ventilation controls inside the mine. The workers died of suffocation. Federal prosecutors at the time called it the largest such settlement in the history of the coal industry.”
Testimony during the trial showed that Blankenship wanted two supervisors fired for bringing attention to conveyor belt problems just before the belt caught fire.
But in the face of a new disaster in one of his mines, this time taking at least 25 lives, Blankenship remains unapologetic and defends Massey Energy’s dismal safety record. Hours after the Upper Big Branch explosion Blankenship claimed victimhood, saying “It’s natural that the enemies of coal would view Massey as the primary enemy.”
“I think that I’ve proven that we run safer coal mines — you know, most of the time — and accidents sometimes happen. We’ve got to figure out what happened here,” he added.
Industry experts and safety regulators already have Massey Energy’s problems figured out. The Upper Big Branch mine has been cited for 600 violations during a period of less than two-years and some of the citations are for not properly ventilating the toxic, odorless and highly-combustible methane gas that is blamed for the worst mining accident in decades.
See The NY Times for more.