Front Porch Blog

Don Blankenship sentence “historic,” but not enough

Families of killed coal miners and workers put at risk deserve more.

Surrounded by reporters, Tommy Davis stood seething from a potent combination of anger and grief. He was waiting outside the courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., where former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship had just been sentenced to one year in prison — the maximum penalty for his crime.

Davis lost his only brother, a son and a nephew in the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine. And while Blankenship wasn’t convicted of directly causing the disaster that killed 29 men, the ensuing investigation led up the company ladder and resulted in multiple convictions, including his own.

The disgraced coal baron was found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws last December.

“I miss my family,” Davis says when asked to explain what he is feeling. “He hugged his. All he gets is a year. [The judge] done great — she give him what she could give him. But they need to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life.”

Shared widely on social media, the heart-wrenching video of Davis (embedded above) and the coverage of Blankenship’s sentence should shift the public’s focus to the leniency and lacking enforcement of our mine safety laws. Since few observers outside of Blankenship’s defense team and the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” himself would argue the punishment fits his crime, the question then becomes: what punishment would?

It’s not just Davis, of course. Several members of the Upper Big Branch victims’ families, while pleased Blankenship received the strictest sentence possible, shared the feeling that a maximum prison term of just one year was an injustice in itself.

It’s also not just the families of coal miners killed in tragic events too commonly called “accidents” that want the national attention on these preventable disasters channeled to creating true reform. Media outlets ranging from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which has had excellent and extensive coverage of the trial, to The New York Times editorialized last week about the failure of worker protections, the life-threatening conditions created when they’re not enforced, and the insignificant repercussions after they’re ignored.

An op-ed in the Times called Blankenship’s sentence historic “not because of the law, but in spite of it.”

“The Mine Safety and Health Act, the statute under which Mr. Blankenship was convicted,” the piece continues, “treats the worst criminal violations as mere misdemeanors. The leniency of the available sentence is a failure of the law, not the facts of the case.”

Similarly, the Gazette-Mail called the sentencing “a historic and significant event,” presumably because of the history of deadly coal mine disasters in Appalachia and a significant lack of accountability, which has allowed events like the Upper Big Branch explosion — the deadliest mine disaster in decades — to happen again.

“West Virginia miners — and workers across the country — have died for generations,” the Gazette-Mail editorial reads. “After their deaths, people investigate and report and often pass laws and write rules to keep the same tragedy from being repeated. But those rules cannot work to prevent workplace deaths if they are not followed.”

We’re told it’s at times like these that platitudes and partisanship can be set aside, creating the political space to make much-needed policy changes. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez released a statement calling for action.

“Regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk,” said Perez. “This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

The next day, Sen. Joe Manchin, urged the leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to take up the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, which would strengthen enforcement, penalties and whistleblower protections.

“I believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can in Congress to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again,” Manchin wrote.

But the same bill has stalled in previous sessions of Congress and, according to the website govtrack.us, it has about a 2 percent chance of being enacted this time around. Meanwhile, the coal industry is finding success weakening mine safety laws at the state level in a dubious and dangerous attempt to slow job losses (read: vanishing profit margins).

Last month, for example, a Kentucky Senate panel approved a bill to eliminate state inspections of mines on the 40th anniversary of an explosion in Letcher County, Ky., that killed 26, the deadliest coal mine disaster in Appalachia after 1970 — until Upper Big Branch.

“The mine safety laws, it is said with good reason, are written in coal miners’ blood,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in a memo to the judge who sentenced Blankenship. For that reason, Americans that live far beyond Appalachia’s borders should be outraged.

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Brian is an environmental news junkie concerned with our lagging energy policy and revealing the true cost of coal on our health, the environment and the climate. He is Appalachian Voices' Director of Strategic Advancement.