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Rob Perks’s Blog

Blame the Coal Baron

Rob Perks

Posted April 8, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Our hearts and prayers continue to go out to the miners and their families in the disaster in West Virginia.  We particularly share the pain of the families of the miners who remain missing days after the massive explosion.  I share the sentiments expressed by my colleague Allen Hershkowitz:

Over the past few years those of us working on Appalachian issues have met many underground miners. We’ve met the wives of miners, the children of miners, the brothers and sisters of miners, the parents of miners, and the friends of miners. They are beautiful Americans rightfully proud of the hard work they do to support their families and power our nation.  Their loss is our loss.

Sadly, the government officials and inspectors who have spoken about the fate of the miners are not optimistic.  Apparently the explosion in the mine was so huge — rail tracks were turned into pretzels, according to at least one report — that it is unlikely that anyone survived.

As the finger pointing gets underway, it is disturbing to see how Massey Energy, the operator of the mine in question, had such a spotty record on safety issues.  The company was tied to eight fatal accidents at West Virginia mines in 2001 and was blasted by investigators for failing to prevent a 2006 fire that killed two miners.  It was cited by federal regulators for 1,342 safety violations over the past five years, including two the day of the explosion.  Davitt McAteer, former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and chief investigator of the earlier Massey accidents, called that "a huge number" and said that Monday's explosion "should not have happened. It was preventable."

That’s why I am so appalled to see puff piece media stories that try to turn Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship into some kind of folk hero. [UPDATE: The Week use this post as the basis of its own article -- cool.]  As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., points out, Blankenship deserves no accolades for how he operates Massey.  Indeed, the folks at ThinkProgress pegged the real story on Blankenship some time ago:

Don Blankenship, the 'scariest polluter in the United States,' is the CEO of [Massey], an egregious polluter, union buster, and extreme practitioner of mountaintop removal mining.  Blankenship also happens to sit on the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which promotes his virulent brand of right-wing global warming denial.

Blankenship, along with his coal baron cronies, spends a great deal of money to influence lawmakers.  As noted by The Washington Post, mining companies have tripled their lobbying expenditures in the past few years to fight against environmental regulations, with Blankenship and his own Massey Energy lavishing a combined $3.3 million to various polluter-friendly politicians.

(Photo by Bill Rhodes)

Back in late 2008, NRDC’s Pete Altman played a small role in opening up the eyes of the world to the real Don Blankenship by bringing to light video excerpts of a November 2008 speech that he delivered in coal country.  It remains the high-water mark in over-the-top climate science denial and the scapegoating of people who promote clean energy jobs and climate solutions.  As Pete noted at the time:

"[T]here's no substitute for actually watching Don Blankenship giv[e] the speech in question.  We managed to snag the only video available of Blankenship's hour-long diatribe.  Aside from the extremism of the views expressed, I was struck by the calm and measured pace of his delivery.  It reminded me a bit of the famous Michael Douglas monologue in Wall Street, in which his Gordon Gecko character calmly, firmly makes the case that greed is good.  Well I guess if you have something nutty to say - like coal is good for the environment -- you have a better chance of being taken seriously if you say it calmly.  

Do yourself a favor and take the time to watch the real Don Blankenship in action.  When you see how this coal CEO really thinks and speaks, you will have a much easier time understanding how the disaster in that West Virginia coal mine could have happened.  And you’ll understand how Blankenship could so callously explain away this most recent mining disaster with his rationale that violations are “a normal part of the mining process.”   

For this latest underground mining tragedy and the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal perpetrated by Massey Energy, blame Blankenship.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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