Shooting Blanks

Being away from West Virginia sometimes means I am not up on the news. But yesterday I got a tip off and am reporting a breaking story: Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey for the past 10 years and a 30-year veteran of the company, is retiring at the end of the year. The cynical side of me thinks this is just a ploy by Massey: if they chance the face of the company, maybe the lawsuits and investigations will lose their energy and not much will change. The more optimistic side of me hopes that Massey will lose its clout without its miner-killing, law-breaking, Apartheid-supporting CEO.

Considering the year Massey has had, I guess I’m not surprised about this development. Since the April 5 Upper Big Branch disaster, Massey paid millions of dollars for a lawsuit after two miners were killed in a 2006 fire in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine; has another lawsuit ongoing from hundreds Mingo County residents whose water was poisoned by coal slurry chemicals, resulting in myriad health problems; and is closing the Freedom Energy No. 1 mine in Kentucky in response to MSHA’s lawsuit against the company’s ongoing safety violations, the first time ever that MSHA has taken this step despite the fact that this law has existed since the 1970s.

Before too much celebration commences – after all, Blankenship may well retire quietly without actually being held accountable for anything – we should recognize that none of these events actually fixes systemic problems.

Yes, they are unprecedented and, along with the changing face of West Virginia legislature after Robert Byrd’s death, open up a really incredible opportunity to make changes in the structure of mine safety legislation. The right combination of factors is here: the law is enforced, Massey is paying large sums of money to citizens affected by their poor practices, Blankenship is stepping down, and a new Senator represents the state to Congress.

But I remain concerned that each of these events will allow MSHA, Massey, and the US government to pretend like new faces and enforced practices mean turning over a new leaf when what they really signify is power being solidified in the same hands that already held it.

Is the closing of the Freedom mine a feeble attempt by Massey to show that they will respond to MSHA, calculating that once will be enough? Will the closing of this mine, which received over 2,000 MSHA citations since July 2008, be enough to get Massey back into MSHA’s good graces so that the status quo doesn’t actually have to change? The problem with this mine closing is that it means that many will be able to convince themselves that the laws do work. If the system doesn’t appear to be broken, then there is nothing to fix, and the laws will remain. Yet these are laws that haven’t been enforced since before they were created, so this one example of effectiveness doesn’t reflect the ease of corporate noncompliance built into the system.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Massey Energy is much bigger and much more terrifying than Don Blankenship alone. Blankenship is not the only reason Massey has poor practices. The company is worth millions, and their mining operations stretch all over Appalachia. Baxter Phillips, Blankenship’s successor, has been with Massey for longer than Blankenship, leading me to believe that this retirement isn’t about revamping the company.

This is all the more interesting because it comes just months after former governor Joe Manchin was sworn into West Virginia’s Senate seat that was previously occupied by Robert Byrd. Manchin has always been in the coal industry’s pocket, just like every other governor of West Virginia, and I doubt much will change in his term as a Senator. While anyone succeeding Byrd would have big shoes to fill, the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster means Manchin will be making a name for himself early on, no matter what positions he takes on future legislative changes for mining. Will Manchin be more inclined to assert himself against the coal industry’s problematic behavior if he’s not working against Blankenship? Or will he remain the coal industry’s pushover, pro-corporate Democrat, lacking any kind of guts to stand up to Massey?

The bottom line is that the law needs to change. Regulations from the 1970s are no longer enough. The timing is auspicious, but will the new powerful few commit themselves to real, systemic change? I want to hope so – I want 2011 to be the year that goes into the legislative books with new coal mine safety regulations. So I won’t say no just yet.

3 Responses to “Shooting Blanks”

  1. Kara Says:

    What is Blankenship citing as his reason for retiring?

  2. Emily S. Channell-Justice Says:

    “It’s time to move on.”

  3. Kathi Says:

    Did you see the latest? First he was going to testify in a closed session this or next week, now he’s not.

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