Friday, April 23, 2010

Try Don Blankenship For Murder

The Times has a fantastic demonstrating the difference in safety conditions between Massey Energy coal mines, such as the one that recently killed 29 West Virginia miners, and mines owned by companies that actually care about safety. They profile TECO Coal Corporation, also non-union, but a company that is almost accident free. Meanwhile, Massey president Don Blankenship specifically undermines safety precautions.

And the attention to safety — or the lack of it — has had measurable results: Compared with the industry average, TECO’s workers spent much less time away from work because of injury last year; Upper Big Branch workers spent significantly more.

TECO’s mine has had far fewer safety violations over the last five years than Massey’s, and the company has been less inclined than Massey to fight with regulators. Massey has contested 69 percent of the proposed $1.9 million in civil penalties proposed by the mine safety agency since the beginning of 2005, federal records show. 

Now, in the wake of a catastrophe that has all of West Virginia in mourning, the trail of federal violations issued to Upper Big Branch, many of them in the weeks leading up to the explosion, seems infused with foreboding.
“The methane and dust control plan is not being followed.”
“The lifeline in the primary escape way” is not being maintained.
“In case of an emergency the men on this section would not have fresh air in the primary escapeway.”

“Management engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence, in that production was deemed more important than conducting parameter checks.”

Massey miners knew their lives were in danger.

Well before this month’s fatal explosion at Upper Big Branch, the country’s worst mine disaster in 40 years, the lack of proper ventilation had been a continuing concern among its miners. The fear of methane building while oxygen dropped preyed on their minds.
“I have had guys come to me and cry,” said the veteran foreman. “Grown men cried — because they are scared.”
But workers in the mine said they did not dare question the company’s safety practices, even when asked to perform a dubious task

“It was all about production,” said Andrew Tyler, 22, an electrician who two years ago worked as a subcontractor on the wiring for the coal conveyer belt and other equipment at Upper Big Branch. “If you worked for them, you didn’t ask questions about whether some step like running a cable around the breaker was a smart idea. You just did it.”
 Did Don Blankenship care? Hell no.

The miner belonged to a crew working in Massey’s Aracoma Alma mine. In a memorandum issued three months before this fire and widely disseminated in 2006, Mr. Blankenship, the company’s chief executive, ordered subordinates to run coal and ignore everything else. A week later he sent a follow-up memo saying that, of course, safety comes first — and that he would “question the membership” of any employee who thought he meant anything other than that.

Now, on the evening of Jan. 19, 2006, just hours after Aracoma officials received yet another handwritten note from Mr. Blankenship — “Stay on coal,” it said in part — a fire had broken out, again, on a misaligned conveyor belt, there was no water, and smoke was thickening.

This first-rate investigative piece tells me that Don Blankenship and the corporate leaders of Massey Energy absolutely do not care about the lives of their workers. Such criminal negligence suggests that Blankenship should be tried on a murder charge, or at least manslaughter.  Corporate leaders who directly cause the deaths of their workers need to be accountable. If the Supreme Court has decided that corporations deserve full personhood, those corporations should also have the responsibilities of full personhood. If I do something that leads to the death of 29 people, I would go to prison. So should Don Blankenship.