The death toll in the West Virginia mining explosion has climbed to 25, the worst mining accident since 1984, and the company that owns the mine, Massey Energy, is coming under intense scrutiny for a record of safety violations that suggests it could have done far more to guard against disasters like the one that occurred on Monday.
Think Progress has compiled extensive data on violations at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where the accident occurred, showing that the company has been cited a staggering 3,007 times since 1995 for violations at that mine, with assessed fines of $2.2 million (Massey is currently contesting $1.1 million of that amount).
Disregard for worker safety was central to Massey’s business model: keep labor costs low to keep profits running high. That meant breaking unions and issuing memos like this one from CEO Don Blankenship which informed mine superintendents that “RUNNING COAL” was more important than any safety-related activity in the mines.
Specifically, Blankenship made a derisive, parenthetical reference to the construction of overcasts, which are mine ventilation structures designed to keep workers alive and breathing.
The company’s environmental record is similarly grotesque. The company is a leading practicioner of mountain-top removal, a horribly destructive method of mining. According to Forbes, in 2001 after 30,000 gallons of sludge emptied out of one of its mines into a nearby river with nary a peep from Massey, it won superlative condemnation from the state’s mine safety board, which called its response “absolutely the worst behavior by any company that any member of this board has ever seen over the decades that this board has been in existence.”
Blankenship is the sort of fringe lunatic readily embraced by the US Chamber of Commerce, where he sits on the board of directors. He calls environmental advocates “greeniacs,” has described the Charleston Gazette as a collection of “communists and atheists” and likened them to Osama bin Laden, and in 2004 launched a sinister, multi-million dollar campaign to back a candidate that swung the West Virginia Supreme Court in his favor. That bit of political intervention served as the inspiration for a John Grisham novel.
And then there is this chilling Blankenship quote from 1984:
“Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to accept that, in the United States, we have a capitalist society. And that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is survival of the most productive.”
Who stands behind outlandish corporate villains like Blankenship?
Wall Street, for one thing. Massey saw big gains in recent months on the strength of profit projections. Stanley Druckenmiller‘s Duquesne Capital gave Blankenship a vote of confidence by buying 6.2% of the company earlier this year. Druckenmiller was once George Soros’s right-hand man, helping him break the British pound in 1992.
To their credit, several banks, including Bank of America, have apparently stopped financing Massey’s operations in recent years. But overall, Wall Street (surprise surprise) had failed to price in the rising risk of utter catastrophe at one of Massey’s coal mines.
Former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman has stood by Blankenship and supported his leadership of Massey for over two decades. He is Massey’s lead independent director (and its longest-serving board member), having joined the board in 1985, when it was still a subsidiary of Fluor Corp (and Blankenship was not yet head of the company). Under Inman’s watch, Blankenship was promoted to CEO. In 2000, Massey split from Fluor, and Inman (and Blankenship) went with it.
Year after year, as a member of Massey’s compensation committee, Inman has approved multi-million dollar payouts for Blankenship. In 2008, Blankenship made $19.7 million, all told, and he reportedly got a raise in 2009.
Inman is about as elite as you can get: Clinton’s nominee for Defense Secretary in 1993 (he eventually withdrew); on the boards of numerous companies, many of them defense contractors; an honorary member of the Public Agenda Foundation, along with social security looter Pete Peterson; and, of course, a member of the Bohemian Club.
All signs point to Blankenship, Inman, and other members of Massey’s leadership facing some tough questions over the coming months.
One place to find them: at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, May 18 at 9am at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.