He’s Mr. Burns Without The Smithers And The Old Jokes (And The Yellow Skin)

Bernard Condon at Forbes, from a couple years ago:

Over the two years through 2001 Massey was cited by West Virginia officials for violating regulations 501 times. Its three biggest rivals, mining twice as much coal in the state as Massey, were cited a collective 175 times. Blankenship says Massey is unfairly targeted by regulators. “We don’t pay much attention to the violation count,” he says.

Maybe he should start. Those violations can grow teeth. Regulators, citing a pattern of violations, have been slapping Massey with “show cause” orders: They will suspend, even permanently revoke, permits to mine or process or store coal, if the company doesn’t show it has mended its ways. If a permit is revoked, it could prove a “death sentence,” in the words of one Massey lawyer, because that would make it difficult for other permits to be issued or old ones renewed. A company spokesperson says that that is an “unlikely” scenario because it would be “suicide” for the state.

Compounding these headaches: a bit of good luck that Blankenship managed to turn into a major problem. In the winter of 2000-01 electricity demand rose and the spot price for Central Appalachian coal jumped from $24 a ton to $48 a ton. Mining companies began digging furiously, hiring more workers and pushing up wages. Blankenship refused to match the increases. Miners quit in droves. The timing was awful. Blankenship had planned to increase Massey coal production for the coming year from 44 million tons to 56 million tons and so needed to add staff. He had to turn to people with little experience. By the end of 2001 half of his 5,000-person staff were new hires.

The company’s cost of sales, which includes miner’s wages, jumped 11% in 2001 for each ton of coal sold. And, despite the surge in coal prices, Massey’s operating margin fell a third, to 13%, that year. Blankenship says his decision to let the old workers go will be vindicated as savings from lower wages pile up.

Massey is trying to show a friendlier face. It recently held a picnic in the state capital, Charleston, for workers and their families, and is donating more money to towns to buy patrol cars and Christmas decorations or to build football fields. The company’s board formed a committee in 2001 to monitor environmental compliance. And it has told Blankenship to hold his tongue, too.

Good luck. Asked in a recent radio interview about charges that he allows trucks to be overloaded with coal, he retorted, “Everyone does it.” Arch Coal, its biggest rival, says it has long stopped the practice. And Blankenship has kept up his drumbeat against regulators, recently calling the state Department of Environmental Protection “an arm of the union.”

David Roberts in Grist, from 2006:

The venerable print magazine Old Trout was recently relaunched with a splashy issue on “The Thirteen Scariest Americans.” I was asked to write up the scariest American from an environmental point of view.

The choice was not difficult. The scariest polluter in the U.S. is Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy. The guy is evil, and I don’t use that word lightly.

The issue is out now. (Look for it on a newsstand near you!) The folks at Old Trout have given me permission to publish an expanded version of the piece after a suitable period of exclusivity. So watch for that at the beginning of December. [UPDATE: Here’s the full piece, “Don Blankenship is an evil bastard.”]

Karoli at Crooks and Liars:

Here’s something else about Don Blankenship and Massey Energy Company: Blankenship spent over $1 million dollars along with other US Chamber buddies like Verizon to sponsor last year’s Labor Day Tea Party, also known as the “Friends of America Rally.” Here’s Massey’s pitch. Note how he makes it sound like he isn’t one of the corporate enemies of America.

The Friends of America Rally featured such notables as Sean Hannity, Ted Nugent, and Hank Williams, Jr., and was graced by Blankenship himself going off on a diatribe that seemed strange at the time, but has come to be commonplace these days. It concerned President Obama, Democrats, and any one who doesn’t salute God, coal, and apple pie. Oh, and we’re also going to ‘steal their jobs,’ if Hannity is to be believed.

Blankenship and Massey Energy spend millions to defend unsafe workplaces

Even while coal dust settles on nearby schoolchildren, there are lessons to learn from this disaster about Massey Energy in general, and Don Blankenship in particular.

It seems that Performance Coal’s safety record is spotty, at best. From the Mississippi Business Journal:

Massey ranks among the nation’s top five coal producers and is among the industry’s most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.

The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25 violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.

Massey and Blankenship also settled a lawsuit brought by the Manville Trust in 2007 with regard to workplace safety and environmental compliance.

The Manville Trust filed the case in July 2007 against company Chairman, CEO, and President Don Blankenship and certain other current and former officers and directors. The plaintiff sought several corporate governance reforms, specifically regarding environmental compliance and worker safety. Citing several incidents involving Massey Energy, including a major federal water pollution lawsuit, penalties for two coal miners’ tragic deaths and other safety and environmental compliance problems, the lawsuit claimed that a “conscious failure” by the defendants to ensure compliance with federal and state regulations and other legal obligations posed a “substantial threat of monetary liability for violations.”

Keep unions out, let teabaggers in

Don Blankenship inhabits a strange and bizarre world. In his world:

  • It’s fine for elementary school-age children to inhale coal dust while playing at school because Massey Coal “already pays millions of dollars in taxes each year”.
  • Blankenship truly believes that government regulation means “we all better learn to speak Chinese.”
  • He has absolutely no problem paying $3 million to elect state Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin just ahead of a scheduled hearing of his appeal to overturn a large damage award for driving competitor Harman Mining Corporation into bankruptcy.
  • Blankenship will spend millions to keep the Massey Energy’s workforce non-union, is perfectly happy to discriminate against union workers even if it means being sued and losing, and might hate unions as much as he hates ‘greeniacs’.

    This is the same mine where the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently ruled that Spartan Mining illegally discriminated against 82 UMWA members by refusing to hire them because of their union membership status.

    “This settlement highlights yet again the treacherous and backhanded manner Massey treated the miners who had worked at the Cannelton mine for decades,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “While it was discriminating against these experienced miners because of their age or union status, the company was at the same time publicly crying about the lack of experienced miners in the coalfields.

    “But it wasn’t that Massey couldn’t find experienced miners,” Roberts said. “They were there all along and wanted to work. It was that the company would rather break the law than allow its employees to have a strong voice at work and the tremendous benefits of a union contract.

Penny-wise, pound-foolish. An investment in experienced workers trained in state-of-the art safety measures combined with OSHA compliance and mine safety measures might have saved at least 25, and possibly 29 lives.

Devilstower at Daily Kos:

In an article yesterday, Laura pointed out some memos from Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship that surfaced as part of a law suit back in 2006. The first of these is extremely sharp and to the point.

To: All Deep Mine Superintendents
From: Don Blankenship
Date: October 19, 2005
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 the coal pays the bills.

A week later, Blankenship was back with another memo.

To: All Deep Mine Superintendents
From: Don Blankenship
Date: October 25, 2005
By now you should know that safety and S-1 is our first responsibility. Productivity and P-2 is second. It has been the culture of our Company for a long time.

Last week I sent each of you a memo on running coal. Some of your may have interpreted that memo to imply that safety and S-1 are secondary. I would question the membership of anyone who thought that I consider safety to be a secondary responsibility.

The point is that each of you is responsible for coal producing sections, and our goal is to keep them running coal. If you have construction jobs at your mine that need to be done to keep it safe or productive, make every effort to do those jobs without taking members and equipment from the coal producing sections that pay the bills.

In the second memo, what Blankenship says boils down to “anyone who says I don’t put safety first will be looking for another job” (“members” is his quaint way of saying “employee”). To understand why Blankenship, a week after issuing the first memo, would feel the need to issue the second, you need a little insight into how an underground mine works.

In this simplified image, coal is represented by the dark area and the mined out areas are in white. In this type of mine, coal is removed in a series of “cuts” and “cross cuts” leaving behind “pillars” (the large dark squares) that serve to hold up the roof. (The Crandall Canyon Accident at operator Bob Murray’s mine in Utah occurred when miners were instructed to “pull pillars” removing the necessary support for the roof.)

To provide fresh air into the mine, enormous fans are placed so that they drive air along the “mains” leading to the “face” (the place where the coal is being mined), which in this case is at the top of the picture. In this image, blue arrows show the air coming into the mine. As the air passes across the working face, it becomes polluted with dust, methane, ozone from electrical gear, burning oil, etc. This exhausted air is vented from the mine. In the case of an emergency miners exit in the opposite direction that the air moves. They walk into the breeze. That way, they’re always walking toward fresh air and any fire deeper in the mine (which can leave toxic fumes as well as remove breathable oxygen) is unlikely to foul their atmosphere. To help the miners find their way out, the main with inbound air is prominently marked with reflective signs.

But looking at the simple map here you might wonder why the air circulates up to the face at all. Why doesn’t it slip around through other passages and never reach the face? Well, some of it does, but the majority of air is directed to the face using barriers that are built to drive the air to the desired areas. Some of these barriers may be temporary structures made of heavy plastic sheets stretched over wood frames.  Older areas of the mine may be blocked off with more substantial walls of concrete block with metal fire doors meant to constrain any explosion or fire. These areas have restricted access, and besides inspectors measuring the amount of methane in these areas few workers are allowed to pass through.

There are also places where one main may cross another, such as a place where the main carrying air into the mine passes over a belt carrying coal out. In such locations one tunnel may move up and the other down for a short distance. That way they can cross without blocking cross traffic and with a minimal mingling of air. These are called “overcasts.”

When methane begins to build up in areas of the mine these different kinds of structures – seals, stoppings, and overcasts – are also used to direct air into the high methane area, diluting the gas and limiting the chance for explosion.

Why then is Blankenship’s initial memo so damning? Because with few exceptions, the only “construction jobs” to be done in the mine are buildings seals, stoppings, and overcasts. And seals, stoppings, and overcasts are the only way of keeping the miners supplied with good air and keeping the mine safe from high levels of gas.

What Blankenship is saying in the first memo is “stop worrying about providing good air, just get the coal out of the ground.” Of course, this was in 2005.

In 2006 miners at another Massey mine died when the mine turned out to have faulty fire extinquishers and water lines that didn’t work. The two widows from that fire were awarded a record settlement, but turned it down saying “Massey executives much farther up the line expected the Alma Mine to emphasize production over the safety of the coal miners inside.”

But hey, 2006. Maybe Blankenship wrote new memos since then. Maybe he wrote new memos since the mine at Montcoal was cited multiple times for ventilation issues. Maybe he wrote a new memo since it was cited for failing to put up those reflecting signs to lead miners out of danger.

Maybe we’ll get those memos soon.

Chris Stirewalt at The Washington Examiner:

The day that at least 25 miners were killed in a West Virginia coal mine blast, the U.S. secretary of Labor said that they would not have “died in vain.”

What Secretary Hilda Solis apparently meant was that this tragedy would be put to good use – exploited in an effort to crack down on Don Blankenship, a non-union coal operator who espouses conservative political views and spends big money to beat Democrats in elections.

Make no mistake, the reports of repeated ventilation problems at the Upper Big Branch coal mine are troubling.

Upper Big Branch is an unusually large operation in one of the most dangerous regions to mine coal – high methane levels and fairly tight working areas make deep mining in Central Appalachia tough. If the coal were not the most desirable in the world, no one would mine there at all. It burns hot and clean and is high demand by steelmakers, and with the demise of the U.S. steel industry, that means India and China.

Having good ventilation is the first safety rule of Central App. We don’t know what caused the explosion – an electric arc, a spark from metal on metal, etc. – but the real question will be how methane levels got so high.

The coverage of the disaster hasn’t focused on the handful of actual warning signs but instead on the volume of complaints from federal regulators. TV newscasters and reporters repeat over and over again that the mine had received “thousands” of citations or paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Diane Sawyer has been the most over the top, but the theme of most of the reporting has been that this is the Toyota Prius of coal mines – a runaway safety problem overlooked by federal investigators. It all forgets that all mines are being constantly written up and fined. It’s a hovering regulatory presence that works more like a health code inspection at restaurants than consumer product safety. Small problems get written up and corrected. Any big problems or an accumulation of un-remedied small ones get you shut down.

Believe me when I say that the Obama administration would hardly have punished a mine regulator who wanted to shut down a Massey mine. The company is the biggest producer in Central Appalachia. Like most of the industry it runs non-union, but the region where Massey mines is the last stand of the United Mine Workers of America – there’s no way to convince coal miners in Wyoming to pay dues and join up, but bitter hatreds left over from mine wars make Appalachia more fertile ground for union organization.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Now, we don’t know a lot about this accident. But the general portrait of Blankenship is a figure utterly contemptuous of anything that stands in the way of profits. The risks of a business strategy that places low wages above experienced workers and disdains regulation are fairly clear. The Forbes profile emphasizes the risks to Blankenship’s stock value, but of course the costs imposed upon workers and the environment are even greater.

Stirewalt, by contrast, takes it as self-evidently true that the Upper Big Branch Mine was sufficiently well-regulated:

all mines are being constantly written up and fined. It’s a hovering regulatory presence that works more like a health code inspection at restaurants than consumer product safety. Small problems get written up and corrected. Any big problems or an accumulation of un-remedied small ones get you shut down.Believe me when I say that the Obama administration would hardly have punished a mine regulator who wanted to shut down a Massey mine.This is a revealing passage. Stirewalt knows that regulation is onerous and the Obama administration fiercely opposed to business. In the fact of a massive event that would seem to obviate his assumptions, he simply reasserts them, as if an article of faith.

And more Chait:

Actually, an accumulation of even significant problems does not get you shut down. The company can just fight the citations. Here’s an excellent, thorough report from the Associated Press:

The company that runs the West Virginia mine where an explosion killed at least 25 workers frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively contesting safety violations, including recent problems with the ventilation system that clears away combustible methane gas.Bombarding federal regulators with appeals is an increasingly common industry tactic since the 2006 Sago mine disaster that killed 12 led to stiffer fines and new enforcement to punish the worst offenders, according to an Associated Press review of records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.While the new rules aimed to make the nation’s mines safer, companies responded with challenges that have backlogged MSHA with claims that go unpaid and unresolved for years. Agency officials say the maneuvers block their ability to punish repeat violators, and worker advocates fear more tragedies.As more facts come out, Blankenship is going to be a very difficult figure for conservatives to defend.

Doug Disney:

This man is a caricature, a veritable Snidely Whiplash of dirty energy and profit margins over people and our shared environment. He is also the High Lord of the Flat Earth society a.k.a. the Climate Change science denial crowd. He uses his position in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to actively work against any changes necessary to mitigate carbon pollution and save humanity from the worst effects of anthropogenic climate change. After all what does he care, he’s very wealthy now, and he’ll be dead before the worst of the impending shit-storm occurs. As my older brother often opines, “Why should I care about what happens to my great-grandchildren? I won’t know them.”

As you may know there are distinct levels of Climate Change denial. The most prominent in the media are the people who acknowledge that it is occurring, but do so only because it’s totally irrational to completely dismiss the overwhelming amount of evidence that it is indeed occurring. They are the, ‘Yes it’s happening, but it is a natural phenomenon’ group. Then there are the people who say, ‘Yes humans are causing it, but there is nothing we can do about it lest we destroy the economy and lots of people will starve and die.’ As a corollary to that belief, there are the people who say, ‘Okay we can do something about it, but that will hurt the bottom line of important industries like coal and oil, and send us back to the stone age.’

Dirty Don doesn’t fit into any of these groups, he is firmly in the ‘Climate Change is a massive hoax and grand conspiracy‘ crowd. He believes the conspiracy is being perpetrated by a shadowy cabal of greedy scientists out to make a buck off the government, and those damn dirty librul elitist hippies who want to teach your kids to worship nature and to hate (not necessarily in this order) America, free-market capitalism, Mom, apple pie, the flag, the troops, and especially our Lord and savior Jesus Christ who taught us that coal will save your soul…

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman


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One response to “He’s Mr. Burns Without The Smithers And The Old Jokes (And The Yellow Skin)

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built This Weekend « Around The Sphere

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