Coal Tattoo

This is an update by Joel Ebert, who is covering the Don Blankenship trial with Ken Ward Jr.

One of the most emotional parts of the Blankenship trial occurred when Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby used his closing argument to outline a series of places he asked the jury to see.

Here’s what he said:

And I want you to picture what you have heard about that in this case. It’s easy to, to, as we sit here over the course of weeks and hear testimony, let it turn into words that are running together. But picture that. Picture going underground every day miles away from daylight in complete darkness. Some of you know something about that. Picture, if you can, being miles away from fresh air, not being able to get enough of it; being told by your bosses to keep on mining anyway without so much as a breeze, in methane gas that you know can become explosive if there is not enough air to blow it away from you.

Picture mining day in and day out, eight or ten hours a shift, while you are literally choking on the coal dust in the air around you. Picture having your boss tell you to go reroute the air in the mine because safety inspectors are coming and you’ve got to trick them into thinking there’s enough fresh air in the part of your mine where your friends are working. And then picture being told to go take your friends’ fresh air away as soon as the inspector leaves so they go back to sweating and choking and being afraid that the methane gas is going to come back again.

Picture a miner who knows that what is standing between him and black lung disease is the dust pump, the sampling device that’s supposed to check how much coal dust he is breathing. Picture that miner being told that he has to cheat on the sample so he can keep eating coal dust without anybody outside ever finding out about it.

Picture Larry Adams, the fire boss, that came in here and testified, probably 70 years old, I don’t know; 40 years in the mines, bad legs, being told that you have to walk miles upon miles of conveyor belts every night, alone in the dark, and change the belt rollers, all alone in the dark; do the maintenance, again all alone; fix the roof in the places that you find it falling down, and then shovel up tons of coal that’s come off the belt. Again, all alone.

And if you don’t, and an inspector finds a violation on your belts, then you’re the one who gets, quote-unquote, disciplined.

Being told to cover an entire mine the size of UBB with only one other person to help you, that would be a joke if it weren’t so scary. How in the world is a human being supposed to do all that?

Picture telling your bosses you were afraid something bad, something serious was going to happen at UBB, telling anybody who would listen and being ignored. Picture walking through a mine and seeing everywhere in the tunnels around you coal dust, knowing it’s explosive, knowing there’s an easy way to make it safe by putting down pure white rock dust on top of it, but the people in charge won’t take the time to do it.

Picture being told it’s your job to spread the rock dust that can stop explosions from happening or spreading in a coal mine but then picture being given a piece of equipment that won’t work, that’s broke down half the time.

Picture asking over and over again for a rock duster that works and being ignored. Picture being pulled away night after night from what you’re supposed to be doing because the mine was shorthanded and there was other work that was more important to keeping the coal rolling on the belts.

Picture coming to work at the end of March in 2010 and writing a note to your boss in the middle of the night, “I’m set up to fail here.”

Picture being a section foreman at UBB.

Picture Rick Hutchens who came in here and testified, trying to do the right thing, trying to follow the law, and, and doing everything he can to keep his crew safe. Picture him being sent all the way down to the far end of the mine — he’s shorter than I am — forced to wade through water up to his chest, in places up to his neck, slip-sliding across the bottom of the mine in pitch black darkness. Picture him taking one of his men with him because he knew that if anything happened to him back there nobody would ever find him.

Picture him trying to follow the law, risking — risking his life in water that’s almost up to the roof. And the thanks that he gets for it is somebody threatening to fire him three or four times a week for trying to do the right thing.

During the above comments, the families of the 29 miners who died in the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine could be seen crying. Ruby was outlining the harrowing conditions they knew all too well and it was hard for them to listen.

Today, I caught up with Judy Jones Petersen, who lost her brother Dean Jones in the 2010 explosion, to find out what she thought of Ruby’s tactic.

Here’s what she said: