Nobody was a stronger advocate for the coal industry and coal strip mining than Don Blankenship. Nobody fought the industry harder than Judy Bonds. Last week, Blankenship retired and Bonds died.
It’s probably safe to say that Don Blankenship had something to celebrate with the new year. Last Friday, the CEO of Massey Energy retired, and according to company disclosures he received $2 million that day. He’ll get another $10 million in July, plus consulting fees for two more years, CNN reported.
Blankenship, dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” in a November profile in Rolling Stone, saw his company come under scrutiny last year when its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia exploded in April, killing 29 miners. Public attention largely shifted when, just weeks later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers.
The Wall Street Journal reported, however, that lawmakers are demanding an end date for the investigation of Massey Energy, which has continued for months in private and with few updates provided to the families of the deceased miners.
The Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has long faced criticism for its failure to take swift action against risky mine operators found to be violating safety standards. Part of the challenge is the agency’s backlog of appealed safety citations. Companies frequently contest citations, delaying enforcement action or avoiding it altogether.
A government report had faulted MSHA for “lack of leadership” in administering a program that was supposed to identify and penalize mines with patterns of violations. The agency had never once tried to exercise its authority by designating a mine as having a “pattern of violations,” a status that opens the door to tougher enforcement, including court-ordered shut downs.
A month later, the agency—which had pledged to toughen enforcement going forward—asked a federal judge to shut down a Kentucky coal mine operated by Massey Energy.
The company poses a particular challenge to regulators. The Washington Post reported this week that for years the company managed to strike deals and get passes from regulators:
Massey’s approach to federal regulation has been notable for two tactics that, according to critics, allow the company to thwart or skirt safety requirements. First, Massey has persuaded regulators to forgo safety rules on a case-by-case basis. Second, the company routinely contests federal citations in a manner that makes it virtually impossible for the government to force quick safety overhauls in the nation’s most hazardous mines.
Under Blankenship, Massey had mastered the art of the regulatory waiver, a way to legally circumvent federal mining laws. The MSHA has approved 30 petitions from Massey to operate its mines outside of safety mandates, more than for any other company. Most were in the past decade.
… The waivers allow Massey to mine through gas wells, to construct escapeways lower than the legally-mandated five feet and to create fewer ventilation channels to provide miners with clean air.
In Congressional testimony this summer, Blankenship acknowledged that Massey Energy contests many citations but said the company “does not ‘game the system’” or place profits over safety.
Massey, according to the Post, is also the nation’s largest mountaintop removal mining company, meaning it produces more coal than any other company through a controversial technique of blowing up the tops of mountains in order to get to the coal. The practice boomed when restrictions were lifted during the Bush administration, but it now faces enhanced scrutiny from environmental regulators under the Obama administration.
Opponents of the practice lost a leader this week with the passing of West Virginia environmental activist Judy Bonds, who had been steadfast in her campaigns against Massey.
Here is how Jeff Biggers described Bonds’s decision to become involved in environmental issues in West Virginia:
A little more than a decade ago, sitting on the coal-dust-swept front porch with her grandson–the ninth generation of their family to reside in Marfork Hollow in West Virginia–Bonds was outraged to hear her 7-year-old grandson describe an escape route should a nearby massive coal waste dam break and flood their valley. “I knew in my heart there was really no escape,” Bonds told an interviewer in 2003. “How do you tell a child that his life is a sacrifice for corporate greed? You can’t tell him that, you don’t tell him that, but of course he understands that now.”
Forced by an encroaching strip mine to move from her family’s ancestral land, Bonds spent the next decade as a full-time crusader (and coal miner’s daughter) to bring her grandson’s message of central Appalachia’s role as a national sacrifice zone from the devastating impact of mountaintop removal strip mining to millions of Americans across the country.
Marian Wang is a reporter for ProPublica.