Why does it take a coal-mine disaster like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion to begin the legal process of bringing coal barons like Don Blankenship to justice? 

Blankenship is the former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, owner of Upper Big Branch Mine.  A 2010 explosion at the Raleigh County, West Virginia, mine killed 29 miners.

Blankenship’s indictment is a historic event in West Virginia. The document charges that a coal mine owner and operator deliberately disregarded laws governing miners’ safety and health. It further says that disregard resulted in miners’ injuries and deaths.  The judicial attempt to bring this “King of Coal” to justice is a long overdue step in the right direction. 

For nearly five years, coal miners and their families in the Appalachian coalfields have been praying for Blankenship to be held accountable.

Mining coal is ranked as the fifth most dangerous job in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  There is an entire federal agency (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) that monitors underground mining and enforces safety laws.  But all the laws, regulations and rules did not save the lives of the miners at Upper Big Branch. Where and how did the system fail?  Did this disaster occur because of a deliberate action or inaction by the mine owner or operator?

The new indictment of Don Blankenship says the coal baron was directly involved in a conspiracy to violate safety laws and then cover up those violations. He prioritized production over safety, according to a series of notes and memos from Blankenship to miners that are part of the indictment. Those notes allegedly threatened employees who failed to cut costs, according to the indictment. (“Please be reminded that your core job is to make money,” one communication read.  Another:  “You have a kid to feed. Do your job.”) 

Blankenship has denied the charges, but three men involved in the case lower on the corporate ladder have already been convicted and sentenced to prison.

Details contained in the indictment may surprise outsiders, but to those of us born and raised in the coalfields, the reign of such “Kings of Coal” is nothing new.  The exposure of this coal baron’s deeds is but a tip of the iceberg of what goes on behind closed doors when money, power and politics are at stake.

Indictment of this powerful, rich coal operator was a day of reckoning for many residents of the Appalachian coalfields. They hold their breath waiting for the result.  Will justice prevail and laws already in place be obeyed? Will the federal government enforce safety laws regardless of money and political connections? 

In West Virginia that may be too much to expect.  I have seen the struggles of the coal miner. My own family, friends and neighbors are coal miners.  I speak from my heart.  I hurt for miners.  I believe miners deserve better. I fear if I say too much about absentee landowners, greedy coal barons or politics, someone will lose a job or even get hurt. But the long, violent history of the miners in the Appalachian coalfields chronicles their unfair treatment.

My dad worked in the coal mines. He was so tall, over 6’3”, and the coal was low.  The circumstances were difficult and he left the coal mines and began cutting posts to mine-roof supports.  He ended up with a bad back and black lung.  Although he moved us out of the Southwest Virginia coalfields to West Virginia, he did not want my five brothers to become miners.  He packed up my three brothers who lived at home at this time, his hunting dogs, guns and my mother, along with the family Bible, and headed west.

One of the last coal-mining deaths of 2014 occurred on December 16 at Patriot Coal Company’s Highland No. 9 mine near Henderson, Kentucky.  The young miner, Eli Eldridge, only 34 years old, was struck and killed by a coal hauler – a long, flat motorized car that hauls coal to the feeder.

The death toll for 2014 is complete. But that’s only because the year is over. What will this new year bring?

Betty Dotson-Lewis is the author of “Appalachia, Spirit Triumphant,”, “Sago Mine Disaster (Featured Story) Appalachian Coalfield Stories,” “The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots,” and co-author of “The Girl from Stretchneck Holler, Inside Appalachia.”

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