Journalism in the Public Interest

As Coal King Retires to $12 Million, Mine Safety Struggle Goes On


Then-Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Don Blankenship listens during a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 20, 2010. He retired on Dec. 31, 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s probably safe to say that Don Blankenship had something to celebrate with the new year. Last Friday, the CEO of Massey Energy retired, and according to company disclosures he received $2 million that day. He’ll get another $10 million in July, plus consulting fees for two more years, CNN reported.

Blankenship, dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” in a November profile in Rolling Stone, saw his company come under scrutiny last year when its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia exploded in April, killing 29 miners. Public attention largely shifted when, just weeks later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers. The Wall Street Journal reported today, however, that lawmakers are demanding an end date for the investigation of Massey Energy, which has continued for months in private and with few updates provided to the families of the deceased miners.

The Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has long faced criticism for its failure to take swift action against risky mine operators found to be violating safety standards. Part of the challenge is the agency’s backlog of appealed safety citations. Companies frequently contest citations, delaying enforcement action or avoiding it altogether.

In September, we wrote about a government report that faulted MSHA  for “lack of leadership” in administering a program that was supposed to identify and penalize mines with patterns of violations. As we noted, the agency had never once tried to exercise its authority by designating a mine as having a “pattern of violations,” a status that opens the door to tougher enforcement, including court- ordered shut downs.

A month later, the agency—which had pledged to toughen enforcement going forward—asked a federal judge to shut down a Kentucky coal mine operated by Massey Energy.

The company poses a particular challenge to regulators. The Washington Post reported this week that for years the company managed to strike deals and get passes from regulators:

Massey's approach to federal regulation has been notable for two tactics that, according to critics, allow the company to thwart or skirt safety requirements. First, Massey has persuaded regulators to forgo safety rules on a case-by-case basis. Second, the company routinely contests federal citations in a manner that makes it virtually impossible for the government to force quick safety overhauls in the nation's most hazardous mines.

Under Blankenship, Massey had mastered the art of the regulatory waiver, a way to legally circumvent federal mining laws. The MSHA has approved 30 petitions from Massey to operate its mines outside of safety mandates, more than for any other company. Most were in the past decade.

… The waivers allow Massey to mine through gas wells, to construct escapeways lower than the legally-mandated five feet and to create fewer ventilation channels to provide miners with clean air.

In Congressional testimony this summer, Blankenship acknowledged that Massey Energy contests many citations but said the company “does not ‘game the system’” or place profits over safety.

Massey, according to the Post, is also the nation’s largest mountaintop removal mining company, meaning it produces more coal than any other company through a controversial technique of blowing up the tops of mountains in order to get to the coal. The practice boomed when restrictions were lifted during the Bush administration, but it now faces enhanced scrutiny from environmental regulators under the Obama administration.

Opponents of the practice lost a leader this week with the passing of West Virginia environmental activist Judy Bonds, who had been steadfast in her campaigns against Massey.

This is the same guy who wrote a memo to employees in 2005 stating that constructing support beams or ventilation shafts was secondary to maximizing coal production. I hope he finds solace in his $12 million because I don’t think it will be enough to buy him forgiveness from the family members of the 29 deceased miners.  After all, one bought and paid for state Supreme Court Justice (Brent Benjamin) cost him $3 million in 2004.  Buying people can be an expensive proposition; he’ll have to come out of retirement to support that habit.

If this guy wrote that memo and it can be proven in a court of law the U.S. Attorney should pursue charges.

You think this scum bag cares about forgiveness?  That would assume his humanity, which seems to be a baseless assumption!

Blankenship is a leader of the US Chamber of Commerce, as is the man Obama just picked to be Obama’s new chief of staff. Blankenship is an example of the heartless capitalist, and there are millions more like him, although few have done the damage he has done. These types of people tend to congregate in the fossil fuels and military industries. The movie There Will be Blood shows this type quite well. For what to do about the lawlessness and death these people spread, read the book What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen. As always, thanks to ProPublica for providing actual journalism.


Feb. 15, 2011, 10:01 p.m.

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In light of today’s released report on this sad disaster,these people must be held accountable here and now,not in some hereafter! Remember that old song “all your money won’t another moment buy,Dust in the Wind”

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