Some inspiring words from a businessman speaking from the heart at the Friends of America rally on Labor Day 2009.
We also endure a Mine Safety and Health Administration that seeks power over coal miners versus improving their safety and their health. As someone who has overseen the mining of more coal than anyone else in the history of central Appalachia, I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job. I don’t need Washington politicians to tell me that, and neither do you. But I also know Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.
The hero is Don Blankensip, CEO of Massey Energy — infamous for its horrible safety record. The following material is valuable reading for all those folks (like extreme libertarians) who believe government regulations serve no useful purpose.
Excerpt from the 9 April 2010 broadcast of Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International.
JEFF YOUNG: It’s the worst mining disaster in the U.S. in decades. As we record this program at least 25 miners are dead—killed in a massive explosion in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country. Officials and families are left with questions and grief. … In neighboring Logan County, family members still grieve the deaths of two men lost in a mine fire in 2006. And just across the state line in eastern Kentucky, residents remember the massive spill of coal slurry ten years ago that destroyed streams nearly ten years ago.
All these incidents have one thing in common: Massey Energy. Massey is the country’s fourth largest coal producer, and has racked up record fines for safety and environmental violations. Writer and journalist Michael Shnayerson spent nearly three years reporting on Massey for his book, “Coal River”. Michael Shnayerson, welcome to Living on Earth. Part of your reporting for the book dealt with this very mine where the explosion took place — the Upper Big Branch mine, is that right?
MICHAEL SHNAYERSON: It did, yeah. The story of Upper Big Branch is in a sense a story of Massey in microcosm. It was a union operation, as really all the mines were in the coal fields at one time, but soon after Massey got a hold of it in the early ’90s, Don Blankenship—the Chairman and CEO of Massey—made it his personal campaign to break the union at the mine. And so even though most of the miners were union miners, and you would think that in an election they would all vote for the union, Don began a personal campaign.
He would fly in on his helicopter to Upper Big Branch, he would take all the union miners to Dollywood, and those who seemed to be on the fence in their voting — new cars would mysteriously appear in their driveways. And, low and behold, he won the vote in 1997. And soon after that bonuses were cut, miners found themselves working longer hours, they had been working eight-hour shifts, now they work 12-hour shifts because that way the mine, which operated 24 hours a day only had two shifts — so only two shifts’ worth of health insurance, and fatalities occurred.
YOUNG: In 2006 there was a fire at another Massey subsidiary mine called Aracoma nearby in Logan county. Two men were killed there and in the criminal investigation that followed we learned about a memo that Mr. Blankenship wrote, and it reads: “If any of you have been asked by your group president, supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal, you need to ignore them and run coal.”
SHNAYERSON: Well, in fairness, Don later disavowed that memo and said that safety was a top priority at Massey. But, you know, in the end the events and the facts speak for themselves. That particular disaster at Aracoma came after some 90 safety violations mostly for the problems that went on to cause the fire.
This tragedy that just occurred at Upper Big Branch seemed to have been the result of a methane explosion—well, all you can do to try to avoid the danger of a static explosion of methane is to ventilate the underground mine extremely well with huge fans and other things. It’s not hard to do, but the fact that this explosion appears to have come from it indicates, as do all the violations that Massey racked up in the last years, a real recklessness in regard to the measures that do need to be taken.
YOUNG: Let’s talk a bit about Mr. Blankenship, Massey’s CEO. Last year, he and his company sponsored a big Labor Day picnic where he had stars of country and rock music, and drew tens of thousands of people, and he gave a speech there railing against Washington regulation and climate change legislation.
BLANKENSHIP CLIP: As someone who has overseen the mining of more coal than anyone else in the history of central Appalachia, I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job. I don’t need Washington politicians to tell me that, and neither do you. [CROWD CHEERING] But, I also know—I also know that Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.
SHNAYERSON: You know, for a storyteller, Don Blankenship is in a way a gift because he’s a storybook villain. And the thing is he doesn’t—one thing you have to say with sort of grudging respect is that Don doesn’t hide his true colors. He is an avowed sort of Darwinian capitalist, and he feels that he needs to do as the head of Massey whatever is necessary to produce profits. And if safety measures get in the way, he’s going to tell his managers to, if not ignore them, to make them a second priority. And he’s taken a certain—I would say—glee in basking in his notoriety as the most aggressive coal baron and, in particular, the most aggressive mountaintop removal operator.
YOUNG: So, tell me what you learned about Massey’s record when it comes to environmental performance?
SHNAYERSON: To Massey the environment seems to be just an impediment to either be blasted away or, you know, ignored as it does its underground mining. Massey routinely racks up far, far more violations than any other coal companies in the region—and there are some large companies in the region, like Peabody or Consol. Massey just doesn’t seem to care about the environment, frankly.
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