You are hereFireDogLake: Don Blankenship and the Chamber – buying the Courts to keep the money flowing

FireDogLake: Don Blankenship and the Chamber – buying the Courts to keep the money flowing

April 12, 2010- Don Blankenship is the head of Massey Energy, the company that runs the Upper Big Branch Mine which just had a horrific "accident" that left 29 dead. Massey’s conduct under Blankenship has been negligent enough to approach criminality, calling into question how much of an "accident" this was. Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers, makes that point:

Since 2005, regulators cited Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine 1,342 times for safety infractions and charged Massey $1.89 million in fines, $1.3 million of which Massey is contesting. Of the violations, 86 were for failing to obey a ventilation plan to control explosive methane gas and coal dust. These are the very factors suspected in Monday’s deadly blast. Regulators issued 12 of those citations in the past month, and miners told the New York Times that dangerous gas accumulation forced evacuations of the mine several times in recent weeks. Regulators found two violations on Monday, before the explosion.

In January, agencies imposed the largest fines in the mine’s history for two violations, including one case in which a mine foreman admitted he’d known of a ventilation problem for three weeks. In 2008, Massey paid what federal prosecutors said was the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry — $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties — after a subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations for a January, 2006 fire that killed two workers in Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. In addition those deaths at a Massey mine and the 29 killed Monday at Upper Big Branch, three other miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998.

The Charleston Gazette reported:

“In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.”

Massey fights these safety citations by appealing them to federal courts, and they appeal more citations than any other company. Put simply, Massey under Blankenship’s lead knowingly cuts corners on safety to make more money. And indeed, that deadly strategy is paying off, with Massey’s stock upgraded to "buy" after Wall Street determined the loss of almost 30 people wouldn’t affect the bottom line.

Blankenship does more than run the killing machine that is Massey Energy. He’s heavily involved in politics as well. Blankenship is on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he’s been heavily involved in electing state judges who are favorable to his business interests.

In the most famous instance, Blankenship poured $3 million of his own money into a campaign to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. When a case involving Massey Energy came before Benjamin in 2007, the plaintiff, Hugh Caperton, petitioned to have Benjamin recused from the case on the grounds that the extraordinary sums spent by Blankenship – more than any other spending by Benjamin supporters and Benjamin’s campaign put together – represented a conflict of interest. Benjamin refused, Caperton appealed, and in 2009 in the decision of Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court ruled that Caperton was denied due process do to the extreme conflict of interest presented by Blankenship’s spending.



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