Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Another Tragic Consequence Of 8 Years Of Conservative Governance Unfolds In West Virginia


Don Blankenship-- Corporate murderer?

Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine, which is operated by serial bad faith players Performance Coal (a Massey front company history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas) is half an hour south of Charleston, West Virginia. Yesterday afternoon a massive explosion of the kind Performance has never been properly punished for, killed at least two dozen workers in the mine.

Following 8 years of lax enforcement of safety rules from the Bush administration-- if you can equate no enforcement with "lax"-- Massey has been fined $382,000 for repeated serious violations at Upper Big Branch as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis worked to fix the concerted damage corrupt conservatives have done to mine safety. The company's CEO, Don Blankenship, has neither committed hari kari nor been lynched-- or even arrested. He did offer some p.r. hack's crafted condolences though: "Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy."

Am I saying billionaire Blankenship should be executed for murder? Well... he should get a fair trial. There's nothing inherently criminal about him funding the teabagger astroturf movement, even if he is contributing mightily to the ruin of our country, But the tragedy in West Virginia puts the spotlight, once again, on greed-driven mining executives, who have done all they could-- with the connivance of conservative legislators in their pockets-- to stifle regulations.
Resistance from mining companies in Kentucky and other states against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of cases, clogged the appeals process and-- in some instances-- allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines.

Members of the House Education and Labor Committee took the mining industry to task Tuesday for contributing to a backlog of mine-safety cases amid concerns that such practices put the nation's miners at risk... Mine owners, many of them in Kentucky and other Appalachian states, are litigating 67 percent of all penalties, according to the House committee. The backlog of cases due for review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 today.

"Blanket and indiscriminate appeals to the review commission allow irresponsible mine operators to avoid these stiffer penalties," the [House Education and Labor C]ommittee's chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., told the panel.

In Kentucky, mine operators appeal 80 percent of the fines for serious safety violations, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The index of the 16,000 backlogged cases is 616 pages long and contains at least $195 million in potential fines, according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Mine safety advocates say the backlog of cases will undermine the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which is largely credited for improved safety provisions and a reduction of the number of miners who die on the job. In 2007, a collapse at Crandall Canyon in Utah killed nine miners. In 2006, an underground explosion at the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., killed five people, and an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 12 miners.

Few people outside the coal industry, right-wing political inner circles, and outside West Virginia knew who Blankenship was until January when Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson did an expose on him as part of a major story on Climate Change deniers. What emerged was not a pretty picture but Blankenship was not removed from his positions as a grave danger to his employees and to society.
In an age when most CEOs are canny enough to at least pay lip service to the realities of climate change, Blankenship stands apart as corporate America's most unabashed denier. Global warming, he insists, is nothing but "a hoax and a Ponzi scheme." His fortune depends on such lies: Massey Energy, the nation's fourth-largest coal-mining operation, unearths more than 40 million tons of the fossil fuel each year-- often by blowing the tops off of Appalachian mountains.

The country's highest-paid coal executive, Blankenship is a villain ripped straight from the comic books: a jowly, mustache-sporting, union-busting coal baron who uses his fortune to bend politics to his will. He recently financed a $3.5 million campaign to oust a state Supreme Court justice who frequently ruled against his company, and he hung out on the French Riviera with another judge who was weighing an appeal by Massey. "Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office," Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia once observed. "He would be twice as accountable and half as feared."

On the national level, Blankenship enjoys a position of influence on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has led the fight to kill climate legislation. He enjoys inveighing against the "greeniacs"-- including Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Al Gore — who are "taking over the world." And he has even taken to tweeting about climate change: "We must demand that more coal be burned to save the Earth from global cooling."

In more unguarded moments, however, Blankenship confesses that his over-the-top rhetoric is strategic. "If it weren't for guys like me," he says, "the middle would be further to the left." He also admits that his efforts to block climate legislation are ultimately self-serving: "It would probably cut our business in half."

And I'm serious when I say that criminals like Blankenship deserve fair trials before punishment. On April 9, 1944, Sunday's NY Times Magazine featured an article by Vice President Henry Wallace on the danger of American fascism, pointing out that "it pollutes public opinion, encourages intolerance and presents a challenge to our democratic way of life." There are few better examples of current American fascism than Don Blankenship. The dictionary defines fascism as "A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism." Thom Hartmann reminds us that "its core governing concept was that the business elite of a nation was far more qualified to run the country than were 'the people.'" With European fascism collapsing, Wallace gave Times readers this perspective:
If we define an American Fascist as one who in case of conflict puts money and power ahead of human beings, then there are undoutably several million fascists in the United States. There are probably several hundred thousand if we narrow the definition to include only those who in their search for money and power are ruthless and deceitful."

This could be inscribed on Blankenship's headstone; but it won't be.

Have you ever seen an OpenSecrets.org page? You'll need to click on it to make it big enough to read:

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