Massey Energy’s owner makes a $209m settlement, but safety violations that killed 29 miners in West Virginia go unpunished
At 3.27pm on Monday 5 April 2010, under Cherry Pond Mountain, Massey Energy’s underground mine at Upper Big Branch exploded. It was the worst US coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years: it was known immediately that at least 25 men had been killed, two more injured, one gravely. Four days dragged on, while we hoped for a miracle; but four missing men were dead.
Eventually, we learned from an independent report (pdf), and another by the United Mine Workers, that Massey had failed to maintain its ventilation systems properly, causing methane levels to increase to dangerous levels. According to a 6 April 2010 report in the New York Times:
“In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.”
Fast forward to 3pm on 6 December 2011, 30 miles away in the state capital of Charleston: the US Mining Safety and Health Administration released its investigation report concluding that the disaster was “entirely preventable”, caused in part by a pattern of major safety problems and Massey’s efforts to conceal hazards from government inspectors. (A video summary of its reconstruction of the explosion is here.)
Earlier, at 11am, US District Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that his office, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Labor, had entered into a non-prosecution agreement, which will cost Alpha Energy Resources Inc, which had since acquired Massey, $209m.
Massey’s reputation was probably beyond repair. Rolling Stone writer Jeff Goodell had profiled its CEO, Don Blankenship, as the “Dark Lord of Coal Country”, “the industry’s dirtiest CEO”. In southern Appalachia, we knew Blankenship only too well; Goodell described him thus:
[H]e grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia, received an accounting degree from a local college, and, through a combination of luck, hard work and coldblooded ruthlessness, transformed himself into the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today – a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who buys judges like cheap hookers, treats workers like dogs, blasts mountains to get at a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th-century idea that burning coal equals progress. And for this, he earns $18m a year – making him the highest-paid CEO in the coal industry – and flies off to vacations on the French Riviera.”
In December 2010, Massey Energy let Blankenship go – but not without a $12m golden handshake. On the day the Alpha Energy settlement was announced, ABC News reported that Blankenship may be seeking to return to the industry, which he left a year ago having overseen the devastating consequences of his firm’s safety failures at Upper Big Branch.
When Alpha announced, on 29 January 2011, that the company would spend $7.1bn to acquire Massey, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said that: “At the end of the day, we were actually able to get comfortable with the exposed risk.” He added that he judged Massey’s estimated $150m in losses related to the disaster was “appropriate”. Massey had already taken a charge of $128.9m during 2010 to cover costs from the explosion, including workers’ compensation, restitution for the families of the miners and expected litigation costs. Under the 6 December agreement, Alpha will make payments and safety measure investments totalling $209m, which breaks down thus:
• $46.5m in restitution (at least $1.5m for each affected worker);
• $80m for safety improvements;
• $48m for safety research over the next two years;
• $10.8m for fines for the accident;
• $24.2m to resolve pending civil penalties at all of its other former Massey operations.
As Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers pointed out in a news release:
“We have repeatedly heard from the current congressional leadership that they were not prepared to act until they knew what happened at UBB. Now they know.”
He called on Congress to strengthen whistleblower protections for workers who want to report safety issues and to include families of the victims in the official investigative process.
With regard to the non-prosecution agreement, Alpha Natural Resources says that it acquired Massey:
“[M]ore than a year after the tragic explosion at their Upper Big Branch mine. Alpha believes the settlements announced today provide the best path forward for everyone. The bulk of the settlement will fund safety training, research and advanced technologies that the company believes ultimately will create a safer work environment for coal miners throughout the industry.”
Ry Rivard, capitol reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, quoted District Attorney Goodwin as saying the non-prosecution agreement represented a “balance”, and that Alpha was “not a life, it’s not a being, it can’t go to jail.”
Twenty-nine men dead. Two more injured. Yet, $209m gets Alpha off the hook for prosecution? So much for the personhood of corporations. Stay tuned to see if any individuals get prosecuted, other than Massey’s security director. At least, this time, the government didn’t sign away its rights to do so.
DA Goodwin made his announcement at the Robert C Byrd federal courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia – named after that state’s late beloved US senator, who has since been replaced by its former governor, Joe Manchin. Although Byrd was generous in his support of the coal industry, towards the end of his life, he was losing patience with Massey and its record of reckless disregard of its workers safety:
“The old chestnut that ‘coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource’ deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.”
As Vernon Haltom, of Coal River Mountain Watch, told me via email:
“Spending on ‘major safety initiatives’ after 29 miners were killed is closing the barn door after the horse is out. The executives who routinely place profits above the lives of miners and community members must be held accountable for all their crimes. Until then, there will be no sense of justice where the coal industry leaves a legacy of death and destruction.”
And, he might have added, with the prospect of the likes of Don Blankenship back in business.