Upper Big Branch

Sun, 2014-11-16 11:54Sharon Kelly
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Prosecution of Don Blankenship a Historic Moment for Coal Industry

This week's indictment of former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, was as much a political turning point for West Virginia as it was a moment of reckoning economically for the coal industry writ large. It marked the wane of one of America's last great robber barons and yet another ominous warning for the country's dirtiest and deadliest of fossil fuels.

The decision represented a political shot across the bow by a smart, dogged and politically ambitious US attorney, R. Booth Goodwin II. For several years now, Goodwin has systematically worked his way up Massey’s hierarchy, convicting not only low-level supervisors, but also executives higher and higher within the corporate hierarchy. Goodwin has based his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations, which means he can reach further up into the corporate structure.

Goodwin's pursuit of Blankenship was politically daring — and, if the indictment is to be trusted — based on solid evidence. But it was also a welcome development for the state's democrats since for over a decade Blankenship had single-handedly dismantled the mine workers union and bank-rolled a resurgent GOP movement in the state, altering the make-up of the state Supreme Court and funneling funds to astro-turf 501c drives for pet issues like “tort reform”.

More than anything, though, the indictment was a small vindication for the families of the 29 men who died at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010 in the worst explosion of the past 40 years. But the incident, a range of investigators concluded, was less an accident and more the outcome of deliberate wrongdoing by Massey.

Sun, 2014-04-13 08:31Ben Jervey
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Never Again: Don Blankenship-Funded Video Absolves Don Blankenship in Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Deaths

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):

Mon, 2013-08-12 12:18Farron Cousins
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Could Lead Paint Lawsuit Pave Way For Class Action Against Coal Industry?

Coal industry executives ought to pay attention to the lead paint lawsuit currently happening in the California court system.

Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the makers of lead paint, alleging that the industry knew about the toxicity of their product and yet still promoted it as “safe” to the public.  The industry has faced many lawsuits over their products in the past, most of which were unsuccessful for the victims, due to the fact that the industry was often up front about the dangers of their products, and they funded public studies to determine the health effects.

But things have changed in the American legal system, and attorneys are now taking a page out of the tobacco litigation playbook.  By unearthing documents that detail the lead paint industry’s attempted cover-up of the dangers, they avoid the “buyer beware” caveat that the tobacco industry used for so long. 

And just like the tobacco industry, lead paint manufacturers were specifically targeting children with their ads.  The California lawsuit is making that a central part of the trial.  Also reminiscent of the tobacco litigation, the suit was filed by cities and municipalities, not individual victims, greatly increasing the chance for success.

The coal industry should be paying very close attention to the progress of this litigation, as their activities could become the next target of skilled attorneys.  For decades, the coal industry has been poisoning American citizens with their coal-mining, -burning and -dumping activities.  Additionally, the dismal working conditions for miners has cost many families an unnecessary loss of life.

Thu, 2013-06-06 08:00Sharon Kelly
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The Epic Rise and Fall of Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO

Three years ago, 29 miners died at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine. It was the worst mining disaster in decades, caused by a methane-fueled blast that was so strong it killed miners more than a mile away and left steel rail lines tangled.

Appalachia has seen its share of these sorts of accidents over the years and normally companies get fined, but mine operators almost never face criminal charges. This time was different.

For the past two years, the U.S. Attorney in West Virginia, R. Booth Goodwin II, has been systematically working his way up Massey’s hierarchy, arguing that beyond the managers who supervised that mine, there was a broader conspiracy led by still unnamed “directors, officers, and agents.” Goodwin has based his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations, which means he can reach further up into the corporate structure. So far, he has convicted four employees including the Upper Big Branch mine superintendent who admitted he disabled a methane monitor and falsified mine records.

But in February, the case took a surprising turn. In pleading guilty to conspiracy charges, Dave Hughart, former President of a Massey subsidiary who is cooperating with the government, said that the person who had alerted him to impending mine inspections was Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship – an accusation that sent a gasp through the entire coal industry.

Fri, 2013-03-08 05:00Ben Jervey
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Don Blankenship, Dark Lord of Coal Country, Implicated in Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion Deaths

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.

Thu, 2012-04-05 17:28Brendan DeMelle
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On 2nd Anniversary of Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, Documentary Explores Lasting Impacts of Mountaintop Removal

Today marks the two-year anniversary of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine disaster that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners.

LinkTV.org will premiere a special show tonight at 9pm EST called “Explore: West Virginia – Hillbillies, Coal Miners, Treehuggers & God,” taking a closer look at the disaster and the lasting impacts on the community of Whitesville, West Virginia.

The candid interviews with local residents discussing the many challenges posed by mountaintop removal coal mining are a great way for people unfamiliar with this issue to learn about the disaster and the larger issues firsthand.

Documentarian Charles Annenberg Weingarten does an excellent job chronicling the stories of Appalachian coal country. The half-hour documentary special takes the viewer through the heart of Appalachia to examine how the Massey mine disaster and ongoing mountaintop removal mining have affected local communities. 
 

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