Roundup: Massey Energy CEO Indicted

Coal Operator Indicted on charges of hiding safety violations • Rural hospitals closing • Hot rocks • Starbucks is suing Vermont (what?) • Building a coal-power plant in Georgia • Trading snaps for snap peas

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The hands-on management style of coal operator Don Blankenship will be part of the legal argument prosecutors use against the man who was head of Massey Energy during the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia.

“The fact that Blankenship was such a micromanager in the running of his mines may turn out to be the knife in his back,” Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and mine safety advocate, told Ken Ward Jr. at the West Virginia Gazette.

Blankenship heads to federal court Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia, to face charges related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion. He was indicted last week in 43-page grand-jury document that charges him with conspiring to violate mine safety rules, interfering with the enforcement of federal safety rules and lying to investigators.

If convicted, Blankenship could face up to 31 years, NPR reports.

The Gazette’s Ward says federal prosecutors charged Blankenship under a section of mine-safety law that applies to mine operators, not corporate officers. That means they will have to show that Blankenship was actively involved in the mine’s management, not just an executive who let others call the shots in the mine.

Proving Blankenship’s hands-on management of the mine is critical to conviction, Ward reports, because the corporation can no longer be held criminally liable for the explosion. Massey Energy was purchased in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources, which was relieved of any criminal liabilities as part of the purchase.

The indictment includes examples of Blankenship’s direct management of the mine, including half-hourly production reports and daily reports on safety violations and fines at individual mines, writes Ward.

Blankenship left Massey in December 2010, receiving a departure package estimated at $86 million.

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller said in a statement that Blankenship’s indictment was “another step toward justice.”

But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it's more than he deserves.”

Blankenship’s attorney says he is innocent and is being prosecuted for his criticism of mine-safety regulators.

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A big part of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster story is that Massey Energy mines faced multiple safety violations before the 2010 explosion.

NPR’s Howard Berkes and Ellen Smith with Mine Safety and Health News team up to show that a pattern of unpaid violations is common in the mining industry and that the fines do little to deter poor operations at unsafe mines. The special series “Delinquent Mines” uses Mine Safety and Health Administration records to examine mines with unpaid fines.

Among other things, the series showed that the fines did little or nothing to improve safety and that the Mine Safety office had no recourse to shut down mines that didn’t pay up.

One sample: The D&C Mining Corp. owed more than $4 million in safety violation fines, the largest debtor in the Mine Safety system. MSHA cited the mine 1,500 times in eight years. “Fines for safety hazards are supposed to discourage unsafe practices by making them costly,” Berkes reports. But that wasn’t the case at D&C, which continued to operate while amassing additional safety-violation fines.

Inspectors spotted conditions so threatening that they ordered miners out of portions of the mine 145 times in the past eight years. The miners went back to work after the hazards were addressed, but dangerous conditions also returned. …

As D&C neglected its mounting safety penalties, the mine produced nearly 800,000 tons of coal. That's worth more than $50 million, according to average annual coal prices reported by the Energy Information Administration for underground mines in eastern Kentucky.

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Forty-three rural hospitals with a total of 1,500 beds have closed in the United States since 2010 – the result of a complex combination of changes in Medicare and Medicaid funding, federal legislation and the failure of some states to expand Medicaid. USA Today has a long report in last week’s editions:

The pace of closures has quickened: from 3 in 2010 to 13 in 2013, and 12 already this year. Georgia alone has lost five rural hospitals since 2012, and at least six more are teetering on the brink of collapse. …

The structure of medical care is changing, leaving small, rural hospitals behind:

"The stand-alone, community hospital is going the way of the dinosaur," says Angela Mattie, chairwoman of the health care management and organizational leadership department at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University, known for its public opinion surveys on issues including public health.

The closings threaten to decimate a network of rural hospitals the federal government first established beginning in the late 1940s to ensure that no one would be without health care. It was a theme that resonated during the push for the new health law. But rural hospital officials and others say that federal regulators — along with state governments — are now starving the hospitals they created with policies and reimbursement rates that make it nearly impossible for them to stay afloat.

Here’s a sampling from several states facing trouble with rural hospitals:

  • Tennessee: Three hospitals have closed or stopped offering inpatient services since January, and "our concern is there's going to be many more," says Craig Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association. When a hospital closes, he says, the ripples reach far beyond, sometimes pushing out physician practices, pharmacies and other medical companies.
  •  He says the states' decision not to expand Medicaid puts Tennessee hospitals at a disadvantage because they are still getting hit with government cuts that assumed all states would expand the program.
  • Kentucky: Even expanding Medicaid couldn't save Nicholas County Hospital. The state's new Medicaid managed-care system brought slower-than-ever reimbursements — which were low anyway because most patients had government insurance.
  • Ultimately, Lois Gates, chairwoman of the hospital board, says it couldn't maintain a 24-hour ER, had to cut staff, and was $2.3 million in debt when it shut down in May. A sign near the empty emergency room says: "This facility is CLOSED. If you need immediate care call 911" and gives the locations of the closest ERs — nearly 20 miles away on winding country roads.
  • "We were trying to keep it open any way we can," said Mike Pryor, the county's judge-executive.
  • Indiana: Many of the state's small hospitals are teetering, two recently closed, and one filed for bankruptcy, says Leonard, of the state hospital association. The state has 30 "critical access hospitals," which receive preferable reimbursement under the federal Medicare program — currently 99% of "reasonable" inpatient and outpatient costs. These hospitals have 25 beds or less, are almost always located in rural areas, and must be at least a 35-mile drive from the nearest hospital, or a 15-mile drive in mountainous or other hard-to-travel regions.
  • Colorado: While none of the state's 49 rural hospitals have closed, a handful are "on the watch list," says Gail Finley of the Colorado Hospital Association. She says almost any hospital closing in Colorado would strand patients, since some hospitals are the only ones for 35 to 100 miles.

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There are a few things in the world that I forget actually exist until someone mentions them at a party, like narwhals and platypuses. And then I always think, “There are narwhals, so why does the idea of unicorns seem so ridiculous?” Seriously, narwhals, you’re crazy. All this to say thank you to Hawaii for reminding us that rocks can melt.

This doesn't seem fair.

— Shawn Poynter

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Neil Young is asking his fans to follow his lead in boycotting Starbucks. Ole Neil is upset that the mega-coffee company is aligning itself with agricultural company Monsanto to sue the state of Vermont over food labeling.

Young said, "Vermont is a small, entirely rural state with just 600,000 people. It's a classic David and Goliath fight between Vermont and Monsanto. Considering that Starbucks has been progressive on LGBT and labor issues in the past, it's disappointing that it is working with the biggest villain of them all, Monsanto."

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Even as coal production falls and small mines are closing in droves, a Georgia developer has plans to build one of the last coal-fired power plants in the country. His plans to open a smoking lounge on the Hindenburg must have fallen through at the last minute.

— Shawn Poynter

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CBS News has a video about former NFL center Jason Brown. “Former” because he gave up his football career to become what the reporter calls a “plain ol’ farmer” in North Carolina, despite having no background in agriculture. Brown just harvested his first crop, five acres of sweet potatoes. YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HE DID NEXT. Well, we will just tell you. He gave them all to a local food bank, something he plans to do with the first harvest every year. 

 

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