Will Massey Negligence Hit Virginia Next?

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    As news focuses on the mine tragedy in West Virginia, I wonder if Tazewell County is simply a tragedy waiting to happen. Last October, Massey’s operation in Tazewell County (Knox Creek Coal Corp.) was one of ten that were cited by Federal safety regulators as the worst in the nation. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration gave the company 90 days to take corrective action.

    In December, the Mine Safety and Health Administration filed suit to force corrective action, charging that the company was not taking proper precautions to protect miners from roof falls, a “significant and substantial” violation.

    Since Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli evidently doesn’t believe in corporations like Massey having any regulation – note his fatuous “lawsuit” against EPA regulation of greenhouse gases like CO2  – I don’t expect to see him bother to attempt state-level action to pressure Knox Creek to comply.

    Meanwhile, news reports get worse and worse from the Massey mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Some of the grieving relatives of the 25 miners confirmed killed in the mining disaster are angry because they found out their loved ones were among the dead from government officials or a company Web site, not from Massey Energy representatives.

    One deceased miner’s daughter said that the family didn’t even know where her father’s body was taken. Massey has not contacted them in any way.

    “They’re supposed to be a big company,” said Michelle McKinney, whose father, 62-year-old Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. She found out from a local official at a school near the mine. Willingham, who had mined for 30 years and spent the last 17 with Massey, was just five weeks from retiring. He had made plans to take his wife on a cruise.

    That mine, located about 30 miles south of Charleston WV, has a history of safety violations. It had 57 infractions last month, several for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane. In the past year, federal inspectors have fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch. Massey has stonewalled paying the fines.

    This tragedy is just the latest deadly disaster involving CEO Don Blankenship’s company, including one in 2006 that resulted in the largest financial settlement in the history of the industry.

    In 2006, two miners died in a fire at Aracoma Mine after Blankenship personally waived company policy and told mine managers to ignore rules and “run coal.” Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced.

    It appears that one way this company attempts to do exactly what it wants, without regard to regulation, is to try to buy off politicians with campaign contributions. CEO Don Blankenship has long been a donor to politicians that he thinks will help his company avoid taking the actions it should.

    Massey and Don Blankenship are a fixture in West Virginia politics, doling out thousands of dollars to candidates he favors – almost all of them Republicans. Perhaps Blankenship’s most blatant attempt to purchase his very own candidate was In 2004 when he spent millions on ads attacking an incumbent West Virginia Supreme Court justice. Partly due to Blankenship’s money, challenger Brent Benjamin won the election.

    At that time, Massey had a $70 million case before the state Supreme Court. Benjamin made a controversial decision not to recuse himself because of Blankenship’s support. Another member of the court hearing the case was Chief Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard, who only recused himself after photographs surfaced showing that he vacationed with Blankenship in Monte Carlo.

    Maynard is running this year for Congress in West Virginia’s 3rd district, which is now represented by Democrat Nick Rahall. I’m sure Blankenship and Massey will take care of their “friend” Spike, who has asked Sarah Palin to come and campaign for him.

    Blankenship and Massey don’t just hand out money in West Virginia, though. After all, they also have extensive interests in Virginia. Indeed, the corporation has its headquarters in Richmond.

    So, last November, Massey donated $40,000 to the campaign of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling got $11,000 and Ken Cuccinelli got $10,000. The corporation didn’t even bother offering a pittance to the Deeds campaign.

    Since 1997, Virginia Republicans have received $441,463 from Massey. (Democrats got all of $8,250.)

    I’m sure that Massey simply loves the absurd lawsuit that Ken Cuccinelli has filed in a vain attempt to have greenhouse gases like CO2 removed from EPA regulation. So, whatever office Cuccinelli wants to run for after state attorney general is sure to draw big bucks from polluters and safety regulation scofflaws like Massey.

    • Shenandoah Democrat

      The reason is Blankenshit owns WVA politics to a disgusting extent.  

    • Yeah, Shenandoah’s right.  Coal owns West Virginia politics lock, stock and barrel.  Even Jay Rockefeller, who had no ties to WV or to coal couldn’t break the cycle.  You want any future in WV politics, and you tow the coal line.  There are a string of destroyed politicians to demonstrate what happens to those who don’t.

      (It’s one of the reasons why I laugh when people around here talk about the Connolly “Machine” and use language about “King Connolly.”  I mean, you have no idea….)

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Yes. The poor working people of West Virginia don’t realize that they STILL “owe their soul to the company store.”

      First, the timber barons followed the railroads and raped the land and, metaphorically, the people. Then, the first coal wave came and, metaphorically, repeated the rape.

      When the labor movement won a victory and got miners a fair wage and some rights, the barons responded with rampant strip mining, blowing up the mountains – raping the land – and polluting the streams and valleys.

      The coal barons own that state. I grieve for you, “Mountain Mama.”

    • tx2vadem

      If these are imminent dangers, MHSA has the power to shut down those mines immediately until the conditions are remedied.  I would ask the question why have they not if these violation threaten the lives of the miners.

      On the AG, it’s not his job (see my comment on the Virginia Coal Mine Safety Act).  It is DMME’s job at the state level to address this.  DMME can shut down Knox Creek too.  Further it is the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s job to prosecute violations.  If you live in Tazwell county, contact him and ask the question.  I don’t know what West Virginia does in this regard.  But if you are concerned about the mine here in VA, there are folks you can talk to.

      On donations, $10k is a drop in the bucket compared to over $2 million raised.  I think you would be hard pressed to say someone is in the thrall of the company that donated that amount.  I mean if $10k is the magic number to own a statewide elected official, then a lot of people own shares of both Democrats and Republicans.  I think the donation here better represents a shared world view rather than Massey buying influence.