Don Blankenship's hubris is surpassed only by his greed.
The “Dark Lord of Coal Country,” as the former CEO of Massey Energy has been called, is using the fourth anniversary of the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine explosion not to honor the lives of the fallen mines, but to absolve himself of any responsibility for the 29 deaths, even having the nerve to point blame at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Blankenship kicked off an egotistical PR blitz by releasing a so-called documentary, titled “Upper Big Branch: Never Again.” The video was funded by Blankenship himself, and proves to be more of a piece of pro-Massey propaganda than a “program that tells the facts about actual people and events,” which is how Merriam-Websters defines documentary.
The video completely dismisses criticism of Massey Energy’s management, despite the fact that multiple investigations have found the company's managers at fault for the preventable explosion and for the 29 lives lost.
One such report, by the West Virginia Governor's Independent Investigation Panel, clearly debunks the main argument of Never Again, that a sudden and unpredictable release of methane from below the mine caused the blast. From the report (page 108):
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.
Following the video’s release on Youtube, Blankenship appeared on multiple television segments, including MSNBC and ABC News, using the platforms to spin blame away from himself and Massey and onto this repeatedly-debunked methane “inundation.” Blankenship repeated time and again how under his leadership, Massey always put miner safety first. Yet in a now-infamous 2005 memo, Blankenship himself described the true priorities at 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. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”
Federal prosecutors have already found Massey’s management at fault, and last year exacted a guilty plea from David Hughart, a former high ranking official at Massey, who during his plea hearing implicated Blankenship himself in a conspiracy to tip off mine operators when federal inspectors were coming for inspections.
U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II told ABC News that the investigation is ongoing, and that his office is going “up the line, and consistently so” in appropriating blame. “What we have seen is a conspiracy to violate mine safety and health laws,” Goodwin said. “And that conspiracy was very pervasive.”
Reactions to “Never Again”
One of the loudest criticisms of the video comes from someone featured prominently in “Never Again.” Senator Joe Manchin, who was governor of West Virginia at the time of the explosion, expressed outrage upon seeing the video and finding out that it was financed by Blankenship.
“Adroit Films, the propaganda firm behind this shameful documentary, never disclosed to me the intent of this film. They 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. Had I known the film was in any way associated with Don Blankenship, I would have never agreed to the interview,” Manchin said in a statement.
Manchin went on to tell ABC News that the video was a “callous” attempt by Blankenship to rewrite history, adding, “I believe this permeated from the top down – from Don Blankenship down. I believe that Don has blood on his hands.”
Manchin isn’t alone in his outrage. Families of the victims, many of whom gathered with supporters outside the federal courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia last Wednesday to speak out against Blankenships PR offensive, have been vocal with their opinions of the film.
“It makes me very angry,” Shereen Atkins, who lost her son Jason in the Upper Big Branch mine, told the Charleston Gazette. “Even with something as big as this — killing 29 men — he has no remorse. He could care less that he killed 29 employees that day.”
“I just can’t believe he’s doing this,” said Gina Jones, whose husband, Dean Jones, died in the blast, told ABC News. “He’s just rubbing our noses in it.”
“It was just like a slap to our faces that he would do this on the anniversary of this,” added Sherry Mullins Scurlock, whose brother Rex died in the blast.
United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts said in a statement released last week that “This self-serving video is no more than a feeble effort by one millionaire to stay out of jail, and is an affront to the families of the victims.”
The United Mine Workers union had previously labeled the disaster “industrial homicide.”
Embedded below is the hour-long piece of propaganda, paid for by, as Senator Manchin described, “millions of dollars that [Blankenship] made off the sweat and blood of the miners:
What you won’t see in “Never Again” are any interviews with the family members of victims or former Massey employees. A forthcoming documentary called Blood on the Mountain hopes to set the record straight.
Judy Jones-Peterson, the sister of Dean Jones mentioned above, was interviewed for Blood on the Mountain, and upon hearing of Never Again, asked the filmmakers to release her interview right away. The directors agreed, and you can watch Jones-Peterson’s heartbreaking interview below.
Blood on the Mountain will be released this Fall.