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Sandy Says: Justice for All

With recent criminal charges brought against a former senior supervisor at the Upper Big Branch coal mine, and a recommendation from the U.S. attorney for 25 years for the former security chief, is justice finally being served for the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch coal mine on April 5, 2010?

Ask anyone who has lost a loved one as the result of a criminal act, and he or she will tell you that there is a certain satisfaction in having the criminal or criminals caught and brought to trial. They also will tell you that as much as they’d hoped for that moment, it was a Pyrrhic victory.

A Pyrrhic victory is one that takes such a toll on the victor that it’s doubtful he or she can withstand another such battle. In the case of victims of a crime and their families, the conviction of a criminal will not bring a loved one back or heal the wounds of the loss.

EHS Today chief editor Sandy SmithSuch is the case with the federal indictments of the Big Branch Mine operators that are beginning to wend their way through the judicial system. On Feb. 22, federal prosecutors filed federal conspiracy charges against Gary May, the former senior mine supervisor at the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the explosion. According to the prosecutors, May and others conspired to hide from MSHA inspectors a number of safety violations that ultimately led to the explosion that killed 29 miners. They claim that May and others also warned mine operators that MSHA inspectors were on their way – a big no-no – so that they could flood the mine with fresh air, reducing the levels of explosive dust and methane that built up over time. These high levels of hazardous materials should have caused the mining equipment to automatically shut down, had May or others on his orders not disabled the mine’s methane monitor.

It is likely that May is cooperating with authorities in the hopes of receiving a reduced sentence. May probably is terrified that he could end up like former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover. Stover was accused of lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy evidence that he allegedly required the security guards at UBB to make a radio announcement at the mine the minute they spotted MSHA inspectors. While federal sentencing guidelines for Stover’s crimes is 33-41 months, prosecutors have asked the judge for the maximum sentence of 25 years, essentially a life sentence for the 60-year-old man. By the time you read this, we’ll know if the judge decided to make an example of Stover.

While I personally am pleased to see criminal charges brought against these men, there are others, much higher up the Massey Energy food chain, who placed profit and productivity so far above safety on their list of corporate values that they created a culture in which everyone – including employees, who had the most to lose – actively or silently participated in a cover-up of safety issues.

The charges against May and Stover are a Pyrrhic victory – a victory to be sure, but not a very satisfying one. As one poster on the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette Web site commented, “[Former Massey Energy CEO Don] Blankenship and the Massey Board should be facing 25 years in prison. Massey makes the case for a corporate death penalty.”

The deaths of workers and million-dollar fines do not get the attention of CEOs like Blankenship or the board of directors of companies like Massey Energy. Their arrogance and money make them virtually untouchable. The only leverage the federal government has with people like this is the threat of prison time.

Even if Don Blankenship is charged with murder or manslaughter, an unlikely but satisfying prospect, it won’t bring back the 29 men who died that spring day in the mine. It won’t, in the long term, bring comfort to their families who will miss them forever. So in that sense, such a charge against Blankenship is a Pyrrhic victory.

But it’s better than nothing.

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