By: Mike Marsh
Coal mining is undoubtedly one of the backbones of West Virginia’s economy. This is a positive sign from an economic point of view, but when you get into the ethical problems, environmental worries and safety concerns that come along with the industry, questions are being raised concerning whether or not the coal industry in West Virginia is doing everything they can to follow codes and regulations.
It wouldn’t be as controversial if the coal industry was following the safety regulations that are imposed in order to protect the environment and ensure safety for workers on the job, but earlier this year a former West Virginia coal mining CEO was put on trial for violating coal mining safety regulations. Don Blankenship faces four criminal counts and up to 31 years in prison for alleged safety violations at mines operated by Massey Energy, which he headed from 2000 until his retirement in 2010. This is thought by some to be the worst U.S. coal industry disaster in 40 years.
The trial which started in November of 2014 was delayed to be held near the end of this month. The federal grand jury’s indictment charges that Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The explosion killed 29 men.
According to Energy Blog, the United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts was quoted stating “The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched. No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time.”
Blankenship’s trial, in which he is being charged with conspiring to violate safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, is a case that when resolved should set more of a precedent for future safety violations in the coal mining industry. When something this tragic happens and so many lives are lost when allegedly safety codes weren’t followed by the companies CEO, it is a though pill to swallow.
Blankenship is not new to being under suspicion for breaking the rules and being unethical. Bloomberg Business reports that he was accused of using more than $3 million in political contributions to help a West Virginia Supreme Court judge get elected in 2004. That same judge ended up being the deciding vote in a split decision to overturn a $50 million jury award against Massey Energy stemming from a business dispute with a rival coal supplier.
The Massey Energy explosion case started to get more interesting and controversial recently when the federal appeals court decided to lift a gag order on the case. The gag order prevented the court proceedings from being made public, and disallowed the participants in the lawsuit from saying anything to the media. This is a significant sequence of events because lifting the order will allow the victims of Blankenship’s alleged criminal disregard to safety to speak freely to the media and tell their stories about how the coal company’s conduct has negatively impacted their lives.
There is hope that these types of disasters can be avoided in the future with more strict enforcements of safety regulations but unfortunately there are people out there who are accused of cutting corners with regard to worker safety and these types of allegations against powerful figures in the coal mining industry in West Virginia cast a dark shadow over the profit coal mining companies generate for the state.