From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters
Detroit—There has been much publicity about the federal indictment of Don Blankenship, owner of the Upper Big Branch Massey mine in West Virginia in 2010 when the mine exploded, killing 29 coal miners. Reactions to the indictment have been varied, ranging from “momentous” to “changing the culture of coal”—a part of which is true, but in another sense reflects the distortions in the American justice system.
The changed culture is reflected in the indictment itself, something that would have been unheard of several decades ago because of the tremendously powerful coal lobby in West Virginia. The coal lobby controlled the economy, politics and the courts. At that time, there never would have been a court case, let alone an indictment.
This decline in the power of the coal lobby mirrors the decline of coal itself, which at one time was pivotal to the national economy, but has a negligible effect today. Nevertheless, the coal lobby still exerts considerable power in the state, and uses that power to support mountaintop mining and to thwart environmentally progressive programs that try to minimize the many dangerous aspects of coal mining.
The distortions in the justice system are clearly revealed in the huge number of violations that Blankenship either initiated or permitted, which included two sets of books related to safety issues, one set of the real violations for the company, the other set with fewer and less serious violations for safety inspectors. This allowed the company to ignore the danger signs of roof falls, hazardous ventilating systems, and accumulation of deadly levels of coal dust.
The autopsies of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion revealed that 71% of them had black lung disease, compared with the industry average of 3.2%.
The evidence against Blankenship is so overwhelming that it is difficult to see how any verdict other than guilty can result, but many Massey miners and their families are fearful that Blankenship’s wealth and connections may set him free.