Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Failure At The Top

Rush Limbaugh, who never has met a right-wing corporate executive he didn't defend, today superficially addressed the mining disaster at the Upper Big Branch coal mine and said of CEO Don Blankenship

Well, here you got a guy, and they're really running this Massey CEO through the coal, folks, they're making this guy out to be the second coming of some world tyrant.

Not surprisingly, Limbaugh didn't tell his audience about the $75 million lawsuit (video below, from an ABC television report) a relatively small coal company initially won against the fifth largest coal company in the nation. Massey Energy had been accused of using fraud to force out of business a company owned by Hugh Caperton. After the latter won the case and the award in early 2002, Massey appealed to the West Virginina Supreme Court.

While the case was pending, Massey left little to chance, helping to raise $3.5 million (in a state in which that's real money) for an advertising campaign to defeat an incumbent Justice, resulting in the election of Brent Benjamin to the Court. That summer, Chief Justice Elliot Maynard and CEO Don Blankenship spent three days with their girl friends on the French Riviera, in Monaco, and in Italy.

The following year, Maynard voted with Massey, which won the case. But a new hearing was ordered after photographs of the European vacation were exposed. A week before this report from ABC News, the Court heard the appeal again, this time without Chief Justice- and Justice Larry Starcher, who recused himself because of his criticism of the Court's cozy relationship with Massey. And again, the coal giant won and the judgement was set aside. When filming the report, there was an altercation between the ABC cameraman and Blankenship, who warned "if you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're likely to get shot."

This is the individual Rush Limbaugh is defending. And so is this, according to the Mississippi Business Journal:

Massey ranks among the nation’s top five coal producers and is among the industry’s most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.

The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.

Apparently, Don Blankenship did little to ameliorate the violations, the Associated Press reporting

Testimony showed that Massey CEO Don Blankenship suggested firing two supervisors for raising concerns about conveyer-belt problems just before the belt caught fire.

According to the AP, the Uppper Big Branch mine has been cited for 600 violations in less than 18 months. In the past year, there have been 495 citations, for which $911,802 in fines had been proposed. At least 50 of the 105 violations found this year

accused the company of "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials, or designating escape routes.

"If you look at other mines that are the same size or bigger, they do not have the sheer number of 'unwarrantable' citations that this mine has," said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News.

But Blankenship's company didn't let all this stand in the way of profit as production has more than tripled and profits skyrocketed.

The incident apparently was not uncharacteristic of the company because

J. Davitt McAteer, a former assistant director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the Massey company “is certainly one of the worst in the industry” when it came to safety and called recent violations at the mine for substandard ventilation and other problems “cardinal sins.”

Brian Ross' ABC report from 2006 centered on the relationship between a couple of judges on the West Virginia Supreme Court and Massey Energy. While there still is a possibility that a few miners will be rescued, there understandably has been little attention focused on the domination by corporate interests of state judicial systems in which judges are elected. At some point, however, there are going to be a lot more questions about the judiciary in West Virginia, Don Blankenship, and the shoddy regulation of the mining industry which contributed to this tragedy.


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