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CEO on Trial for Explosion that Killed 29: Stopping Black Lung Disease “Not Worth the Effort”

Don Blankenship black lung

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The West Virginia case against ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship continued following the Columbus Day weekend with jurors hearing recordings of phone calls in which Blankenship downplayed the threat that black lung plays in the lives of miners. In the tapes he demonized the U.S. Mine and Safety Health Administration (MSHA) for their role in trying to fight it. 

Blankenship, 65, is being charged with violating safety laws which led to an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. 29 miners were killed by the blast.  The recording revelations came as prosecutors questioned Blankenship’s former personal assistant. They were recorded by an unnamed worker at the then-rival Alpha Natural Resources, which eventually bought Massey for $7.1 billion.  

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger allowed into evidence 18 of 21 recordings that the prosecution hoped to present.  In them, Blankenship goes back and forth on the role of the MSHA, at one point questioning if “we’d blow ourselves up” without their inspections.  A full list of evidence brought forward by the government is available on the Department of Justice website.

Massey went on to admit the necessity of the MSHA and its mission while all but repeating the prosecution’s charges that his lack of regard for standards created the scenario in which the explosion was possible:

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things.  I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them.”

Speaking specifically about MSHA’s campaign to cut down on black lung disease, which has been a contributing factor in more than 76,000 injuries and deaths since 1968 (according to the MSHA), Blankenship said: “The fact is black lung is not the problem in this industry that is worth the effort they are putting into it.”

In another recording Massey worried that a confidential memo outlining the safety problems discoveed by MSHA at the Upper Big Branch mine would be “a terrible document to be turned over in litigation.”

On October 12th, MSHA program analyst Tyler Childress was called by the prosecution to speak about 20 pages of records from the period spanning January 2008 to April 2010. The documents detailed citations against Massey.  Childress’ testimony highlights the foundation of the prosecution’s case against Blankenship:

Using data he collected from MSHA’s records, Childress told the jury MSHA issued 836 total orders and citations at UBB during that time frame. Of those, 311 were considered substantial, while 284 dealt specifically with ventilation.

One of several charts shown to the jury dealt with comparisons of rates of violations per inspection day. From Jan. 1, 2009 to Apr. 9, 2010, the nationwide rate for all underground mines in the U.S. was .86 compared with a rate of 1.38 at UBB — a 52 percent difference.

Childress compared the number of unwarrantable failure orders at UBB to eight mines of similar production output. In the time period examined, 59 unwarrantable failure orders were recorded at UBB, MSHA records showed. The nearest mine on the list recorded 13, while several had zero unwarrantable failure orders.

Unwarrantable failure orders are characterized as those going beyond ordinary negligence for conduct such as “reckless disregard,” “intentional misconduct,” “indifference,” or “serious lack of reasonable care,” according to MSHA.

The memo found that, for their part in the more than 300 citations at the Upper Big Branch mine in the first four months of 2010, Massey faced up to $546,000 in potential fines.

If convicted Blankenship could face up to 30 years in prison.  He is charged with three counts of conspiracy to violate mandatory mine safety and health standard, making a false statement ot the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, and securities fraud.  Blankenship is not being charged with causing the actual explosion, which led to the deaths of 29 workers.

Speaking to the International Business Times, author Rena Steinzor argued that Blankenship’s actions as CEO deserve jail time, though jailing CEOs for their companies’ actions is not the norm in the United States:

“Don Blankenship is the worst of the worst, he’s almost a caricature.  It’s just appalling what was going on there. It was going on for years and the government was sort of impotent. Everybody was watching, it was like a train wreck in slow motion.”


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