Our laws provide harsher penalties for depriving investors of information than for depriving miners of their lives.
That’s one takeaway from the conviction earlier this month of Don Blankenship, CEO of the company that owned the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers were killed in an entirely preventable explosion in April 2010.
Congress has had five years to correct this inequity and to remedy other weaknesses in the law revealed by the disaster at Upper Big Branch. But the Republicans who control Congress have blocked mine-safety legislation, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and shown little interest in protecting miners or punishing those who willfully endanger them.
Blankenship was convicted of one misdemeanor count, willfully conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards, which carries a maximum penalty of one year.
The jury acquitted him of two felony counts – securities fraud and providing false statements to bolster Massey’s stock price after the disaster – that carry penalties of up to 20 years and five years respectively. The jury also acquitted him of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which carries a penalty of up to five years.
One mystery the trial did not clear up: Was Blankenship and his bottom-line-obsessed disregard for employee safety a distant outlier in the coal industry, as we want to believe? Or was he just a somewhat extreme example who made the mistake of putting incriminating evidence in writing and on audio tape?
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who prosecuted Blankenship, has referred to the carnage at Upper Big Branch as a “Third World mine disaster” in 21st century America.
But Blankenship’s largely successful defense argued that some of Massey’s egregious practices, such as sending out warnings when federal inspectors arrived at the mine so safety violations could be quickly covered up, are just a “piece of coal mining culture.”
The defense team argued that safety violations are inevitable and played on the unpopularity of federal regulation and President Barack Obama in coal country. Questioning an economist who was on the stand to explain why Blankenship might have lied to investors, The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward reports, a lawyer for Blankenship asked, “Do you know who Barack Obama is?” and managed to repeat the name “Obama” three dozen times.
Blankenship, who will be sentenced April 6, received permission on Thursday to travel to Nevada over the holidays to be with his fiance and their families. That’s cold comfort to the families of the 29 miners who will never spend another holiday with their loved ones because of Blankenship’s edicts.
As coal jobs keep disappearing in Kentucky and West Virginia, miners will be under even more pressure to keep quiet about working in clouds of coal dust, as was routine at Upper Big Branch, and other safety violations. They will risk their lives rather than risk their jobs – another “piece of coal mining culture.”