Just under three years ago, an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia stole the lives of 29 miners. Many were quick to condemn Massey Energy – the coal giant that operated the mine – for their long record of lax safety oversight, and to bemoan the preventability of the disaster.
Blame was directed straight to the top of the company, to then-CEO Don Blankenship, “the dark lord of coal country” himself, who had grown a vile reputation in the field for systematically putting production and profit over worker safety.
Late last week, in a surprise twist during a routine plea hearing in a federal court, all that blame was seemingly justified as Blankenship was directly implicated in conspiring to skirt safety regulations. A former Massey Energy official called our his boss, Blankenship himself, for conspiring and plotting to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors.
The implication was that Blankenship would order his officials to warn mine operators when the federal inspectors were coming for “surprise” visits, and to quickly cover up any safety violations.
In his article about the hearing, Ken Ward, Jr, described the testimony:
But a fairly routine plea hearing here took a surprising twist when U.S. District Judge Irene Berger pressed Hughart to name his co-conspirators and Hughart responded, “the chief executive officer.”
Though he was not mentioned by name, Blankenship was then CEO, and Hughart’s wife confirmed to the Associated Press the target of the implication:
“Don called the office and at home,” she said, adding that her husband has been threatened several times in his career. “Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear.”
The United Mine Workers of America were quick to respond to the allegations, and are calling for Blankenship’s indictment and conviction for the 29 deaths.
Those of us who have observed Blankenship’s lawless ways over the past many years have long predicted this day would come if the facts ever came out.
Finally there is a witness to Blankenship’s misdeeds who will step forward and tell what he knows. Hopefully more will follow suit. If the investigation into the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine is to be complete, Don Blankenship’s indictment – and then conviction – is the only possible outcome.
So what next? If the U.S. Attorney working the investigation, Booth Goodwin, is going to go after Blankenship, he is still keeping his cards close to his chest. Local commentators seem to think that Goodwin is trying to work his way up the ladder and build a case that’ll go all the way up to the dark lord himself.