Massey Energy’s Manmade Hellhole

by Jim Hightower

In March of last year, Massey Energy Corp.’s official record book for recording unsafe conditions in its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia said flatly: “none observed.” It turns out that this was a flat-out lie. Just one month later, Upper Big Branch exploded, killing 29 miners and devastating their families.

Massey’s in-house “observers” had indeed found safety problems — as they often did in this shoddily run, notoriously dangerous mine. But the corporation kept a dual set of books in order to mislead state and federal safety regulators.

The official record book, which Massey and all other coal giants are required to keep for review by government inspectors, is filled with such rosy reports as “none observed.” But the true dangers at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines have been secretly recorded in a set of internal books that executives kept sealed in the corporate closet.

Massey’s secret reports are, however, now out of the closet, thanks to a comprehensive, 15-month-long probe by a hundred-member team of federal mine-safety investigators. The team’s findings reveal not only an ugly safety record, but also a truly ugly corporate culture.

The investigators concluded that Massey — an enormously profitable corporation — pushed an ethic of profits over safety. Its executives took premeditated, systematic steps to circumvent safety rules, including falsifying records, failing to maintain (and sometimes actually disabling) safety systems, and intimidating and even firing workers who tried to report hazards. The probe included interviews with 266 people — but, interestingly, 18 Massey honchos (including longtime CEO Don Blankenship) refused to be interviewed, invoking their right against self-incrimination.

No wonder they took the Fifth. Upper Big Branch was a disaster long before it exploded into an underground hell. Despite the corporate policy of deceit, the deep shaft simply had too many problems to hide — in the year before the catastrophic blast, Upper Big Branch had received more mandatory orders from government regulators to shut down unsafe areas than any other coal mine in America. The president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, bluntly says that Massey’s executive suite, board of directors and the entire management structure showed “utter contempt for mine safety and health laws.”

What we have here is another grotesque example of America’s “de-reg follies.” Corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues have yoked our nation to a policy of corporate carelessness that coldly accepts worker deaths as a necessary cost of doing business.

Disgustingly, 15 months after the shameful explosion, nothing has changed. While Massey Energy has been taken over by another mining giant, Alpha Natural Resources, the new owner has thumbed its nose at miners by hiring former Massey executives, including two who had direct oversight of Upper Big Branch. Then, in an astonishing affront to the families of the 29 dead miners, Alpha hired Massey’s chief executive to run its mine safety program! This insult puts the “numb” in numbskull — and it was so crude that public outrage has now run the Massey chief out of Alpha.

The prize for Most Craven Performer, however, goes to Congress. Republicans and a handful of coal-backed Democrats have cynically blocked passage of tougher mine-safety laws to stop the senseless, murderous greed of coal profiteers. But now, the damning evidence assembled by the mine-safety team has both infuriated and emboldened grassroots reformers, and they do not intend to let the congressional scoundrels go unchallenged.

Gene Jones, for example, whose twin brother, Dean, was blown up in the Upper Big Branch conflagration, says he’s personally going to Washington to confront each one of them.

“If you continue to wait (on Congress),” he says, “it’s going to happen again. It’s time to do something. I’m just going to speak out the best I can and be honest about it. And make them listen to me.”

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Jim Hightower