When mine safety inspectors arrived at Upper Big Branch, a guard at the front gate would radio the mine office to raise the red flag. “We’ve got a man on the property,” he would say. The message was then passed in code to supervisors using a telephone system that connected underground, where they instructed miners to get rid of accumulated coal dust and throw up missing roof supports and ventilation equipment.
“We just got things legal,” Mike Shull, a former miner at Upper Big Branch told NPR in 2010, the year an explosion at the mine killed 29 men. “You probably had an hour and 15 minutes to get ready.”
The tip-off scheme is described in detail in the 43-page indictment handed down Thursday by a federal grand jury against Don Blankenship, the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy.
“Blankenship knew that [Upper Big Branch] was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations,” the indictment alleges. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
Blankenship was cited 835 times in the 28 months leading up to the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years, in which a combustible mixture of coal dust and methane ignited, killing 29 men working 1,200 feet below ground. The explosion was a direct result of safety violations at the mine, according to a 2011 report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Its findings were corroborated by two independent investigations.
“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched,” United Mine Workers of America President Cecil E. Roberts told the New York Times.
In 2008, Upper Big Branch was ranked as one of the worst mines in the country. By 2009, the fines for safety violations were piling up on Blankenship’s desk, the indictment said.
The most common violation was not cleaning up explosive coal dust and other combustible materials in the mine. The company was also repeatedly cited for failing to hose down equipment, a tactic used to reduce heat that might ignite explosive gas or dust.
In an area of the mine 100 feet long, where miners had to travel every day, inspectors found the roof had caved. Management had known about it for a month. It did nothing, the indictment said.
Failing to build a ventilation system to clear out dust and gas as work advanced deeper into the mine was another routine violation. On one occasion, airflow in the mine was less than half the legal requirement. Inspectors found miners laboring in air thick with coal dust.
Safety checks were supposed to happen every day. They didn’t.
A year before the explosion, Blankenship got reports almost every single day – 249 in all – detailing the hundreds of safety violations at the mine. He did nothing.
“[H]e chose to maximize profits by depriving [Upper Big Branch] of the coal miners and non-coal-production time that it needed to comply with mandatory federal mine safety standards, concluding that it was less expensive to routinely pay fines for violating such standards than to allocate the necessary funds to following them,” the indictment charges.
Blankenship was more interested in the daily reports on mine production, especially in an area called the longwall section that began operation in 2009. He insisted on getting updates every 30 minutes on production and the reasons for any delays, the indictment said.
That was the money section of the mine, bringing in $600,000 worth of coal per day. Upper Big Branch produced a particularly lucrative kind of coal called metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. It was used along with coal from nearby Massey mines to create a blend that generated $331 million in revenue for Massey in 2009 alone.
Instead of hiring more miners to bring in the coal, Massey diverted its understaffed crew from doing the work necessary to keep the mine safe, like building ventilation systems. Massey’s non-union miners labored under intense production quotas leaving little time for the understaffed crew to tend to basic safety housekeeping like sweeping up coal dust.
Blankenship knew all this, the indictment alleges. In addition to getting the violation reports, he oversaw every detail of the mine, right down to approval of incremental pay raises and a $750 request to hire a contractor to check the freeze-proving system.
Blankenship chastised one mine executive for failing to produce coal as fast as he wanted, and told him in a memo not to worry about safety. “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time,” the memo said, according to the indictment.
And it wasn’t that he didn’t have the money to fix the problems — he had at least $391 million on hand in the months preceding the tragic explosion, according to the indictment.
Through his lawyer, Blankenship denied the allegations. “Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety,” Massey’s lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement reported by the New York Times. “His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him.”
Blankenship, who maintains the explosion was caused by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas in the mine, faces up to 31 years in prison for his alleged crimes.
“It’s an important day for many, many families in the Central Appalachian coal fields,” Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented miners’ widows, told the Charleston Gazette. “For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia (D) said of Blankenship told the Times: “As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed.” he said. “And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”