Detroit—A new break in late February signaled a giant step forward in the prosecution of officials at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, where a methane gas and coal dust explosion two years ago killed 29 miners in the worst mine disaster in 40 years. The break came when federal prosecutors filed charges against a superintendent at the mine at the time of the explosion who is apparently cooperating with prosecutors.
While charges have already been filed against a mine foreman and the security chief, they are small potatoes compared to a superintendent, who has great authority and responsibility in determining the operation of a mine. That he is cooperating indicates that his testimony may lead to future charges being brought against higher Massey executives of the mine—and this is crucial to bring those who were the real safety violators to justice.
BLANKENSHIP IS THE REAL CRIMINAL
The chief architect of those deadly violations is Don Blankenship, then head of Massey Energy, which was recently bought by Alpha Natural Resources on the condition that Alpha not be prosecuted for Massey’s crimes. Blankenship has much to answer for, not only the more than 360 safety violations reported that led to the death of the 29 miners. Equally important is the vicious culture of fear and terror that he created at all of his mines and in the communities of the miners.
To enhance his ominous aura of intimidation, he drove a black Mercedes, flew to the several mines he owned in a black helicopter, and wore black clothing. The refusal of miners and their families to talk to reporters following the explosion is an indication of their fear of Blankenship. They knew that if their names ever appeared in any paper, any family member working at Massey would be fired immediately. They were so fearful that, even when reporters promised not to use their names, they still refused to talk.
As for the miners themselves, Blankenship tolerated no hint of opposition to anything he dictated and ordered that a miner be fired on the spot for daring to point out a dangerous safety violation or question anything he decreed. Unfortunately, he was able to destroy any attempt to form a union, leaving the miners at his complete mercy—of which he had none.
This pattern goes back to the 1960s and his first Massey mine in West Virginia, when he refused to renew a union contract with the United Mine Workers union. After months of a strike marked by horrible violence on the part of Blankenship, he succeeded in breaking the strike and the union.
INSTILLING A CULTURE OF TERROR
Blankenship refined this anti-worker, anti-union pattern in the years that followed. He expanded his mine holdings and instilled the same culture of fear and terror wherever he went. He became a violent anti-environmentalist, recklessly and aggressively polluting his mine areas with toxic mine wastes. He vehemently supported mountain-top removal mining, as well as reactionary political policies.
What must be understood is that the culture of fear and terror that he instilled in his mines and miners required an unquestioning bureaucracy, from the executive boardroom to the mines themselves. There were many miners, foremen and superintendents who could not follow his illegal or dangerous orders and quit working for him, but those who remained obeyed him unquestioningly. It was this blind obedience on the part of the foremen and superintendents at the Upper Big Branch mine that resulted in the explosion.
The extent to which Blankenship blatantly ignored his responsibility is seen in the charges brought against the cooperating superintendent, which include conspiracy to defraud the government by blocking a federal agency, which is a felony. This is important because present laws classify a “mere” safety violation as a misdemeanor, with little punishment involved.
Supporting evidence of the charge is the revelation that workers were directed to falsify safety records and to use code words to warn when mine safety inspectors were coming so that safety corrections could be made. The charge also notes that safety equipment on a mining machine to detect the presence of methane gas had been rewired to render it inoperative. These violations were routinely practiced, placing the miners’ lives in deadly danger.
Until these felony charges continue to go up to the executives, especially Blankenship, there can be nothing even approaching justice for the dead miners and their families. Even this, of course, cannot bring those dead miners back to life or ease the pain of their families.