It is hard to imagine what the families of those 29 miners have been through. Think about it. Your husband or son or brother or father is snatched away — blown away really — stolen from your family in a violent underground explosion.
But it’s not like they just didn’t come home from work one day. You got a terrifying phone call. The phone call mining families have come to fear, but somehow always know could come. And then you spent a couple days in the ritual of waiting and hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe he somehow survived.
But even when that reality hits you, it’s not like you got to just bury him and grieve and try to find a way to live. There were meetings, and hearings and lawsuits. And all of the people from the media — maybe they’re just trying to do their job, but after a while having a microphone in your face gets kind of old.
And then, the CEO of the company who ran the mine that blew up got indicted. Maybe there would be justice, you thought. But then there was the trial. And it seemed like it would never end. And it was confusing — What were all the lawyers talking about up at the judge’s bench? What do all of these objections mean? Are those jurors even paying any attention to any of this?
Finally, though, there was a verdict. But even then — even then — everybody keeps talking about how none of this was really about what happened to him. What happened to all of them. It was about something else, not about what happened to those 29 miners.
Today is one of those days on the coalfield calendar. Another mine disaster anniversary. There are so many of them. Two weeks ago, it was Centralia, Illinois. March 25, 1947, 111 miners killed. Later this month, it’s Dola No. 1 in Harrison County. April 25, 1963, 22 dead. Then Federal No. 3, Everettville, W.Va., 97 miners.
Today, lots of people will talk about how they remember, how they’re praying for the families. How they’ll never forget.
I’m sure that’s all true. People do remember, and they do pray. Certainly, those families will never forget. The pain that folks like Gary and Patty Quarles must feel. I can’t imagine. They lost their son at Upper Big Branch. That never goes away. They won’t forget what happened.
But what about the rest of us? How can it be that today, of all days, there aren’t hundreds of people over in front of the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse for a protest or a vigil or just a quiet remembrance? Where are all those friends who care so much about our state’s coal miners now? What about the people who had a chance to speak up before all those miners died, and didn’t? What about all of us, who have a chance now to speak up, to do whatever needs to be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Because while today is a day like many others on the coalfield calendar, tomorrow is a quite different sort of day.
During a hearing scheduled to start at 10 a.m., U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger will sentence that CEO who got indicted. Don Blankenship is really a legendary sort of figure in Appalachia and the coal industry. He was once one of the region’s most powerful men. He’s still one of its richest.
Tomorrow in court, Blankenship will stand convicted by a federal jury of conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards. He faces up to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.
It’s a remarkable thing. A historic development. The CEO of one of the region’s largest coal companies was convicted of a mine safety crime after the worst mining disaster in a generation.
It’s true that Blankenship, as the defense makes clear in its recent court filings, wasn’t charged with blowing up the mine. He wasn’t convicted of causing that explosion, of killing those 29 men.
But what Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby outlined in his sentencing memo to Judge Berger is also true:
We have known for a very long time what makes coal mines explode. We have known for a very long time how to prevent it. And, sadly, we have known for a very long time that some mine operators will ignore these hard-learned lessons until the law compels them to take notice. The mine safety laws, it is said with good reason, are written in coal miners’ blood.
Defendant knew full well the awful risks, dramatized time and again in ghastly fashion over the years, that he was taking by flouting the mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch. There was no mystery about what poor ventilation meant: buildups of methane that would ignite with the slightest spark. Yet UBB’s miners were left pleading for air. There was no question what accumulations of coal dust meant if not properly treated: a powder keg 1,000 feet below the surface, primed to blow at any time. Yet black dust pervaded the mine, a calamity in the making.
There was nothing the least bit hidden or mysterious about the dangers of how Defendant chose to run UBB. They manifested themselves openly, obviously, to anyone with the most basic knowledge of coal mining, and certainly to Defendant.
Ruby goes on to remind us about Blankenship, and provide more important context:
How does one take the measure of such a crime? Defendant was the chief executive of one of America’s largest coal companies—a multibillion-dollar behemoth with its shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, a fleet of private aircraft, luxurious board meetings at posh resorts around the country, and vast resources to support its mining operations. He had every opportunity to run UBB safely and legally. Instead, he actively conspired to break the laws that protect coal miners’ lives. Although already fabulously wealthy by the time of the criminal conspiracy of which he stands convicted, Defendant’s greed was such that he would willfully imperil his workers’ survival to further fatten his bank account.
After the trial, some of the Blankenship jurors said that they didn’t know that conspiracy to violate mine safety standards was a misdemeanor. If that’s true, they were just following instructions from the judge — juries aren’t supposed to know potential penalties. They’re just supposed to decide guilt or innocence.
Deciding a just sentence will be up to Judge Berger. And of course, Blankenship’s appeal will be up to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Deciding the potential penalties for a criminal conspiracy that puts miners at risk, though … well, that’s up to Congress. And when was the last time you heard any of West Virginia’s elected officials — either on the state or federal level — talking about the need to change that law, to make mine safety crimes felonies, and provide more serious punishments?
In Washington, our elected officials are way too busy making noise about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do anything about coal-mine safety.
And in Charleston, about the only thing on the mine safety agenda has been the coal industry bill to weaken mine rescue team requirements and some other safety mandates. Hardly anyone in the Legislature would bother to even ask decent questions about that bill, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin doesn’t seem to have hesitated to sign it. None of that is surprising if you remember that Gov. Tomblin’s legislative response to Upper Big Branch was not to crack down on things like coal dust or methane monitoring, but to drug test miners.
It’s hard to escape the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd after the Sago Mine Disaster a decade ago:
I have seen it all before. First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster.
Just this morning, both Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito issued statements to mark the Upper Big Branch anniversary.
Sen. Manchin said:
Six years ago I grieved with the miners’ families, West Virginians and the entire nation during the hours and days after the unspeakable mining tragedy at Upper Big Branch. Today on this sad anniversary, our hearts weigh heavy as we remember the tragic Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the 29 brave West Virginia miners we lost that day, who went to work and never returned home to their loved ones. I stayed with the miners’ loved ones through moments of hope and despair in the days following the devastating tragedy and saw the unbreakable bonds of family.
No family or community should ever endure a preventable tragedy like the one at Upper Big Branch again and this day reminds us that we always must put safety first. The health and safety of our miners will always be my top priority and I have always been committed to ensuring our miners return home safely every night. Our hearts are still broken and Gayle and I join all West Virginians in honoring those miners’ memories as we grieve their loss and pray for continued strength for their families.”
Sen. Capito said:
It’s hard to believe that six years ago today 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. For many West Virginians, especially those who lost loved ones and friends, the memories from that terrible day are still so fresh in our minds. My heart still aches for the families of the 29 miners whose lives were forever changed on April 5, 2010. As our state continues to heal from this tragedy, I will continue my efforts to protect our coal miners who selflessly put their lives at risk in order to provide for their families and power our state.
No real mention in there of anything either of them has done recently to try to get any sort of mine safety bill, especially one that would toughen the penalties for mine safety crimes, moving in Congress. Thinking about the families and praying for them is obviously worth doing. But trying to divorce the mine disaster completely from the Blankenship case — and especially divorcing the weak state of current criminal laws about mine safety violations — seems to be quite a disservice to the men who died and to their surviving families.
It’s like we feel compelled to remember the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, but it’s convenient to at the same time forget how it happened and what needs done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.