The Massey Energy Co., its CEO Don Blankenship and its board of directors have a lot of explaining to do.
Massey Energy operates the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia where 25 workers were killed and four are missing following an explosion on April 5. The mine, one of many operated by Massey Energy, received 53 citations from MSHA in March, many related to ventilation and build up of methane. In 2009, the mine received over 500 citations and was issued nearly $900,000 in penalties. These fines appear to be part of the cost of doing business for Blankenship and Massey Energy.
"Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” Blankenship said during an interview with the Metronews radio network in West Virginia. “There are violations at every coal mine in America, and U.B.B. was a mine that had violations,” he added, referring to Upper Big Branch.
Despite its reputation as a dirty, dangerous occupation, mining can be a safe industry; just ask the dozens of companies that operate hundreds of mines where no workers have been killed or seriously injured. These owners and operators do not consider violations to be a part of doing business, nor do they consider safety as something that only should be addressed when production quotas are met.
That can't be said of Blankenship. A memo sent by him to his deep mine superintendents in 2005 indicated the value safety holds for him.
In the memo, Blankenship stated, “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 coal pays the bills.”
Spoken like a man who would do anything – including knowingly operating an unsafe mine that had been evacuated three times in the past 2 months because of unsafe methane levels – to make a buck.
Criminal prosecutions of employers for negligently harming or killing workers are few and far between because overt negligence often is hard to prove. In this case, his own damning words might be just the evidence prosecutors need to make an example out of Blankenship, West Virginia's own Nero, who fiddles while mines and miners burn.