The Dark Lord of Coal Country

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With so much profitable coal to be had, the focus was on productivity at any cost. The safety record at the mine was abysmal — and it was getting worse. Last year, citations by the Mine Safety Health Administration at Upper Big Branch doubled to more than 500 — including 200 for "significant and substantial" violations that MSHA considers "reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness." Most telling of all, MSHA issued 61 withdrawal orders at the mine, temporarily shutting down parts of the operation 54 times in 2009 and seven times in 2010. Such a high number of withdrawal orders is virtually unheard of in the industry — yet federal inspectors, not known for being tough on outlaw coal operations, failed to close down the mine. "It's like someone driving drunk 61 times," said Celeste Monforton, a former policy adviser at MSHA.

The most serious violations involved the ventilation system, a complex operation that requires miners to constantly move curtains around to funnel fresh air into the mine. But at Upper Big Branch, supervisors pushed miners to cut corners and evade inspectors. "When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we'd hang the curtain — but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again," miner Jeffrey Harris later testified. "Some people would tell the inspectors about these kinds of ventilation changes, which were made for their benefit. But the inspectors told us, 'We need to catch it,' and that didn't happen very often." In parts of the mine, Harris added, "the air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you."

The explosion occurred just as miners were changing shifts around 3 p.m. on Monday, April 5th. The force of the blast, which was likely caused by high levels of methane ignited by a spark, ripped apart massive mining machines as if they were a child's toys. The fire turned 90-degree corners and rounded a block of coal 1,000 feet wide, killing everyone in its path. The destruction was so bad that rescuers walked past the bodies of four missing miners on the first day without noticing them.

In the days after the disaster, Blankenship could be seen heading in and out of the company building where families waited for news, his eyes fixed on the ground, a mix of what looked like guilt and anger on his hangdog face. His presence only served to enrage family members. "He just stood there and let others do the talking," says Quarles, whose son died in the explosion. In interviews, Blankenship denied that his mines are more dangerous than others, and dismissed the high number of safety citations at Upper Big Branch. "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process," he said.

For the first time in his life, Blankenship suddenly found himself in the midst of a crisis that he could not buy his way out of. The media coverage of the disaster was relentless, and industry insiders wondered openly if he would have to step down as CEO of Massey. Even longtime champions of Big Coal began to use him as a punching bag. During a Senate hearing on the tragedy, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — perhaps the single most valuable ally the coal industry had — took the extraordinary step of personally rebuking Blankenship for his recklessness and hypocrisy. "I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers," Byrd said. "The Upper Big Branch mine had an alarming — an alarming — record. Shame!"

Blankenship took the abuse from Byrd — and then got on with the business of being Don Blankenship. He recruited a team of heavyweight consultants from the Bush era, including lawyer Robert Luskin, who represented Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame spy case; a PR firm called Public Strategies, run by former Bush communications chief Dan Bartlett; and Dave Lauriski, the head of MSHA under Bush. Together, they cobbled together a survival strategy that Tom Sanzillo, a financial analyst who specializes in coal, calls a "blood war" against MSHA. "His goal," says Sanzillo, "is to turn the tables on investigators and turn the Upper Big Branch disaster into a referendum against the federal government."

The first prong of the strategy is to delay and discredit the investigation. Massey tried to challenge MSHA for refusing to allow the company into the mine to collect its own evidence, but a judge dismissed the complaint as grandstanding; it was as if a murder suspect had demanded that police grant him access to a crime scene so he could examine the bloodstains himself. But the ruse allowed Blankenship to suggest that MSHA was conducting the investigation in a secretive way — a charge that fit well into the larger narrative he was constructing about the disaster.

The story that Blankenship is peddling has taken several turns. First he argued that MSHA itself was responsible for the explosion at Upper Big Branch because its ventilation plan didn't allow methane that had accumulated in the mine to be removed quickly enough. Then, on November 17th, he suddenly theorized that the explosion had been caused not by methane but by natural gas, which is rarely a problem in coal mines. In short, he suggested, the disaster had been unavoidable.

It's a good story — but it has little to do with reality. For starters, testimony from miners makes clear that high levels of methane were a persistent problem at Upper Big Branch. Two miners told The New York Times that the mine had been evacuated for dangerously high methane levels three times in the previous two months. "Finding explosive levels of methane regularly," one miner wrote nine months before the explosion, documenting conditions in the mine. "Section has low air. Company constantly trying to fool inspectors."

What's more, Blankenship's version of events conveniently ignores the role of coal dust in amplifying the explosion. Coal dust is a constant problem in underground mines. It's usually handled by good housekeeping, and by scattering limestone dust in problem areas to neutralize the coal's volatility. Shane Harvey, the general counsel for Massey, insists that Upper Big Branch was adequately dusted before the blast. But of 1,800 samples collected by MSHA after the explosion, only 400 had been properly treated for coal dust. Even more damning, logs of inspections by mine employees show that eight conveyor belts contained excessive amounts of coal dust only hours before the explosion.

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