West Virginia Coal Mine Owners Have Blood on Their Hands

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tags: West Virginia, Coal Mine, Coal, Coal Mine Owners



James Green’s book on the West Virginia mine wars, The Devil is Here in These Hills, is published by Grove Press this month.

When a federal grand jury recently indicted Donald L. Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, for willfully violating government safety regulations in order to maximize coal production, it seemed possible that a top corporate executive might finally be held accountable for miners killed on his company's property. Twenty-nine miners were killed on April 5, 2010 in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. This tragedy was a direct result of safety violations at the mine, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The loss of life in the Montcoal explosion was the coal industry’s worst since 1970, but in a long view it fit a pattern going back more than a century. The indictment of Blankenship and two of his subordinates is rare in the history of American coal mining, and if convictions follow, it may signal a welcome break in the bloody history of corporate irresponsibility that has characterized West Virginia’s coal industry.

After a mine at Red Ash blew up in 1900 and snuffed out the lives of 46 men and boys, the state’s Republican governor declared, “It is but the natural course of mining events that men should be killed and injured by accidents.”

The Mountain State was home to some of some of the most rapacious coal operators in the nation: men like “King” Sam Dixon, an Englishman who controlled Fayette County’s mines, newspapers, and Republican officials. When two of his mines exploded in 1906, 135 miners died. Even though the Gilded Age coal baron had violated mine safety laws, county coroners’ juries placed the blame on “human error.” It was no wonder that King Sam escaped indictment: he had handpicked the jury members largely from the ranks of coal company officials and political cronies.

Dixon could have been a role model for Don Blankenship, who poured more than $3.5 million into a 2004 state supreme court election, a contest won by his hand-picked candidate, a Republican who, as a judge, refused to recuse himself in cases involving the Massey company....




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