HANG DOWN YOUR HEAD AND CRY - Big Branch Disaster Four Years Later, Blankenship Says Company Made Scapegoat

(04/07/2014)

COMMENT By Bob Weaver

It's the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mining tragedy, and former Massey CEO Don Blankenship has funded a documentary film expressing his views about the disaster - "Upper Big Branch-Never Again."

The documentary features a segment of former WV governor and now US Senator Joe Manchin, supporting the coal industry, a leader against "Obama's War on Coal" and further deregulation

Manchin says he's livid over his comments being used in the film.

Manchin accepted a ride on Blankenship's private plane to return from Florida after the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Blankenship says he funded the documentary to unveil the real reasons behind the explosion, with critics saying it's just propaganda designed to try and make the former Massey Energy CEO look good.

Twenty-nine Upper Big Branch miners were killed in the April 5, 2010, explosion.

Miner's families protested the film in Charleston, saying former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and other high-ranking corporate officers of Massey should be criminally charge and go to prison. “They shouldn’t be walking around free, I’m sure they have enough evidence” said Shereen Adkins who lost her son in the disaster.

Like most disasters in West Virginia, the company called it an accident or just another "act of god."

Five years prior the explosion, Massey Energy had received 1,422 citations for safety violations at the mine and was assessed $1.89 million in penalties.

Over a period of years, Massey operations ignored over $2 billion in safety and environmental violations.

MSHA released its final report on Upper Big Branch on December 6, 2011, concluding that flagrant safety violations contributed to a coal dust explosion. It issued 369 citations at that time, assessing $10.8 million in penalties.

After the explosion, legal teams were hired to deal with a backlog of contested mine safety citations. The number of unresolved appeals had grown to 16,600, and Massey Energy, then owner of Upper Big Branch, had the highest contestation rate of any coal mine in the nation.

UMW president Cecil Roberts called it "industrial suicide."

MSHA itself has been blamed for ignoring critical safety violations, regulators long playing cat-and-mouse games with Mountain State extractors, giving a free pass to King Coal.

The coal outfits and their political allies have said such enforcement is a "war on coal."

Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought Massey Energy in 2011, settled its corporate criminal liabilities with the U.S. Attorney for $209 million.

Investigation of personal criminal liability continues, with one former superintendent, Gary May, pleading guilty in March 2012, and "confess[ing] to conspiring to 'impede the [MSHA]'s enforcement efforts'".

In April 2012, producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. said it will permanently close Upper Big Branch.

In Denise Giardina's book "Storming Heaven," she wrote about King Coal - "It stole everything it hadn't bothered to buy, land deeds, private homes, and ultimately, the souls of its men and women."

For those victims and their families, after the wailing of politicians about the tragedy and the protestations of over- regulation, we can only "hang down our head and cry."

Massey was a company that for years ignored over $2 billion in fines for safety and environmental violations.

CEO Blankenship was never criminally prosecuted.


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