Coal Tattoo

Back in February, when one-time Massey Energy official David C. Hughart alleged that former CEO Don Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations, Blankenship’s lawyer made it pretty clear what he thought of Hughart and his claims. As we reported at the time:

William Taylor, a lawyer for Blankenship, said his client has done nothing wrong and downplayed the significance of what Hughart said.

“We were quite surprised at the reports of Mr. Hughart’s statements at the time of his guilty plea,” Taylor said. “Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, he did everything he could to make Massey’s mines safe.

“We’re not concerned particularly about the story concerning Mr. Hughart,” Taylor said. “It’s not surprising that people say untrue things when they are trying to reduce a possible prison sentence.”

Well, yesterday Blankenship added to what his lawyer had to say. The former Massey CEO has a new post on his “American Competitionist” website and blog. It’s headlined MSHA Carries Out Obama/Roberts Agenda.  At the end, Blankenship has this to say about U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s ongoing criminal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and Massey:

If they put me behind bars …  it will be political.

And he concludes with this comment about Hughart:

As for Dave Hughart who Cecil cites as a witness and who says I conspired with him to notify miners that inspectors were on mine property – Dave was fired by Massey prior to the UBB explosion for drug use and theft- i.e. basically what he was arrested for. He is expecting to get a reduced sentence for his plea. Maybe he will, but he is not telling the truth about me.

We’ve reported before about Hughart’s record, citing internal company records made public and filed in court that show he was, in fact, fired a few weeks before the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up on April 5, 2010 (Hughart actually didn’t work at UBB, but at other Massey operations):

Internal Massey documents, made public as part of lawsuits against the company, show that Hughart was fired on March 19, 2010.

Hughart had failed a random drug test and “seemed to be having financial difficulty,” according to the documents, which were unsealed by a court action brought by The Charleston Gazette and NPR News. Massey auditors alleged that Hughart hired his son, promoted him to an $89,000-a-year job, and gave him a company truck to drive. The audit report, filed in Kanawha Circuit Court, also alleged that Hughart received $150,000 in kickbacks between May 2008 and March 2010, by having a Massey contract firm fake invoices for work that was never performed.

Now, if you’re wondering what got Blankenship thinking about all of this, he seems to offer two reasons.

First, he cites recent comments by UMWA President Cecil Roberts in the union’s magazine (see page 20):

Cecil Roberts, in the March/April addition of the UMWA Journal, said “I commend U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin for taking this investigation where no one else has, and look forward to the day when Don Blankenship is behind bars; where he belongs.” Cecil has never been reluctant to say outrageous things or to lie about me, as he can’t get over his failure in the strike of 1985. In this case, I hope people will see his obvious effort to influence prosecutors for what it is.

But according to his blog, Blankenship also had recently watched “Act of Vengeance,” the 1986 movie in which Charles Bronson portrays UMWA reformer Jock Yablonski:

The movie is about then UMWA President Tony Boyles’ hiring of assassins to kill his political opponent Jock Yablonski in 1969. At one point in the movie, an actor playing UMWA executive council member Albert Puss says, “If he (Yablonski) wins a hell of a lot of us will go to jail.”

Blankenship goes on to suggest that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration increased its enforcement actions at the Upper Big Branch Mine and other Massey operations as part of some vast conspiracy to cover up something about the death of a non-union truck driver during the union’s 1985-96 strike against Massey:

But something else may interest some of you. It is the possible connection of conversations I had with a guy named Arnold Heightland and the increased scrutiny on Massey mines by MSHA. Arnold Heightland is one of four persons convicted for “interfering with the transport of coal” during a 1985 strike by shooting and killing Hayes West, a non-union truck driver.

Arnold Heightland was released from prison in 2009. I asked him the question-“Did someone pay you to be involved in the killing of Hayes West?” Unfortunately Arnold, after consulting with his attorneys, responded by pointing out to me that he had never been tried for murder and therefore he could not answer. You see there is no statute of limitation on murder, and it is important to note that likewise there is no statute of limitation on murder for hire.

In the months after my asking Heightland this question about the shooting, MSHA violations increased to record levels at Massey mines.

Blankenship goes on to repeat his previous claims about the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners:

MSHA made it clear in 2009 that UBB would be forced to use MSHA’s preferred ventilation plan even as company engineers advised and protested against it. The week after MSHA’s forced changes were made and ventilation thereby reduced, the mine exploded.

UBB may or may not have exploded anyway given the huge unpredicted inundation of natural gas.

As I’ve previously written about this gas inundation issue:

Now, as difficult as many folks might find this to take, Blankenship has a point here. We broke the story long ago about how there had been previous methane outbursts at the Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the 2010 explosion. And we’ve reported on how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s own investigation concluded that exactly this sort of methane leak likely was part of what began the chain of events that killed those 29 miners. And we revealed how MSHA blocked questions by independent investigator Davitt McAteer’s team about what federal officials did — and didn’t do — to follow-up on the previous methane incidents at Upper Big Branch.

But it’s also important to remember that every independent expert that has investigated the Upper Big Branch Disaster has rejected Blankenship’s broader take on events there, and his effort to place the blame on anything but Massey and the company’s failure to take very basic safety precautions. We reviewed this all before in a post called UBB update: Don Blankenship is at it again:

[Special investigator Davitt] McAteer’s team, for example, said in its report:

… Even if the cause of the explosion had been found to be an infusion of natural gas or methane into the UBB mine atmosphere, such an event was entirely foreseeable. The previous incidents in 1997, 2003 and 2004 were well documented and should have served as ample warning for the company and provided an incentive to develop and follow a plan to deal with future outbursts.

And, McAteer’s team included in its report an entire chapter which debunks the notion of an uncontrollable natural gas inundation, and supports the conclusion that the disaster involved a small methane ignition that only turned into a huge explosion because Massey had failed to control the buildup of coal dust at the mine:

Ultimately, the footprint left behind in the Upper Big Branch mine and the testimony of survivors supports the initial theory that the explosion started with methane and fed on coal dust as it tore through the mine. The footprint, supported by witness testimony, also offered concrete evidence that Massey Energy failed in its responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its workers.

United Mine Workers union safety experts concluded in their own report:

Some of the most deadly mine disasters in history have been the result of mine operators violating the mandatory requirements of this section of the Mine Act. This is what happened at UBB. The final deadly event was played out on April 5, 2010, but one of the major causes of the explosion–float coal dust–was permitted to accumulate for months before the explosion. These accumulations were widespread, encompassing almost all of the active sections and intake and return air courses. Many of the citations issued in just the fifteen months before the explosion demonstrate how imminent this danger was. 

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training concluded:

The methane explosion quickly transitioned into a coal dust explosion, which severely damaged ventilation controls, conveyor belts, water lines, electrical systems and numerous items in its path until the fuel was consumed and the explosion extinguished itself outby the track switch at the beginning of North Glory Mains. The amount of rock dust being maintained on mine surfaces at the time of the explosion was insufficient to stop a coal dust explosion. The region where the dust explosion started does not appear to have had rock dust periodically applied over the fine coal dust. Periodic applications of rock dust over accumulating fine coal dust are necessary to render such dust harmless.

And MSHA found in its investigation report:

PCC/Massey allowed conditions in the UBB mine to exist that set the stage for a catastrophic mine explosion. The tragedy at UBB began with a methane ignition that transitioned into a small methane explosion that then set off a massive coal dust explosion. If basic safety measures had been in place that prevented any of these three events, there would have been no loss of life at UBB.

Moreover, MSHA reported:

While violations of particular safety standards led to the conditions that caused the explosion, the unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC/Massey were the root cause of this tragedy. The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.

The investigation also revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators.

And, MSHA concluded:

Massey routinely ignored obvious safety hazards and let conditions develop that allowed a small methane ignition to propagate into a massive coal dust explosion.  The tragic deaths of 29 miners and serious injuries to two others at Upper Big Branch were entirely preventable.