Of the 31 miners who worked in the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, 29 were killed in an explosion on April 5, 2010. In May of 2011, the company that owned the mine, Massey Energy, was found to be negligent and reckless in the disaster; that June, the government suggested that Massey had falsified its safety records.
Massey Energy’s former CEO, Don Blankenship, is “a really bad dude,” as David Roberts wrote in 2006. The 2010 explosion followed a long string of problems and warning signs. Blankenship doesn’t seem to have been concerned. As far back as 2003, he told Forbes that his company “[doesn't] pay much attention to the violation count.”
Perhaps the threat of jail time for one of Massey’s top executives will prompt other coal execs to pay closer attention. From the Associated Press:
An executive who ran several Massey Energy coal companies and worked closely with former CEO Don Blankenship faces criminal conspiracy charges and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, a sign that authorities may be targeting Blankenship himself in the fatal West Virginia blast that was the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades.
David Craig Hughart, president of a Massey subsidiary that controlled White Buck Coal Co., is named in a federal information document — which signals a defendant is cooperating — filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Beckley. …
The court document accuses Hughart of working with “known and unknown” co-conspirators to ensure that miners underground at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations received advance warning about surprise federal inspections “on many occasions and various dates” between 2000 and March 2010.
It’s easy to consider this abstractly, as an example of a bad boss in a dirty, aging industry. But the specifics of the charge are extremely sobering.
The explosion at Upper Big Branch was sparked by worn teeth on a cutting machine, and fueled by methane and coal dust. It was allowed to propagate by clogged and broken water sprayers. The force of the blast traveled miles of underground corridors, rounding corners and doubling back on itself to kill men instantly. …
A memo suggesting Blankenship regularly ordered underlings to put profits before safety emerged during a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the widows of two men killed in a 2006 fire at Massey’s Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine.
The memo told workers that if their bosses asked them to build roof supports or perform similar safety-related tasks, “ignore them and run coal.”
Hughart will plead guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government and a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate health and safety standards. Other parties to the conspiracy might consider packing a go-bag and placing it near the front door.