Thursday, November 20, 2014

This time, the almighty dollar loses

   “It’s an important day for many, many families in the central Appalachian coal fields. For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”
   Just when it seems that it’s all about money.  Just when it appears that the almighty dollar is more important than people, their health and safety, even their lives. 
   Indeed, the dollar was all-important to Don Blankenship and his company that ran the Upper Big Branch, the coal mine in West Virginia where an explosion more than four year ago killed 29 miners. As Bruce Stanley,  a lawyer who has battled Blankenship in court for years on behalf of the dead miners’ families, indicates in his statement, this became evident to federal officials who indicted him earlier this month on charges that he covered up deadly safety violations. 
   According to the indictment, Blankenship, who headed the Massey Energy Company for years and retired shortly after the accident, committed and caused hundreds of safety violations “in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws and make more money.”  He concocted an elaborate warning system of coded messages to alert mine foremen of impending safety inspections and, after the disaster, lied to the Securities and Exchange Commission and others about mine safety practices. 
   In one memo referred to in the indictment, Blankenship ordered a manager to “run some coal,” adding, “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time.  Now is not the time.“
   When was the “appropriate time” to “worry about” safety? When he got caught not doing so? 
   Blankenship sent two hand-written notes to a manager accusing him of “insufficient attention to cost-cutting.”
   “You have a kid to feed. Do your job,” one note said. When the manager failed to raise production as high as Blankenship demanded, Blankenship sent him another note saying, “I could Khruschev you. Do you understand?“
   It’s about time someone like this gets “Khruscheved.” For too long, being slapped with violation fines has just been another cost of business.  For too long, these companies, like Massey in West Virginia, have dominated politics and beaten back attempts at tougher safety and environmental regulations.  If he is convicted on all charges, he’ll face 31 years in prison. In a 2013 blog post, Blankenship, a powerful political force in the state and a reliable Republican campaign donor, wrote, “If they put me behind bars…it will be political.”
   Maybe this won’t be the only shake-down for the almighty dollar.  As also reported recently in the Los Angeles Times, sweatshop conditions have been documented by officials in the garment district in L.A. There are scenes right out of Dickens, down to shaky elevators with flickering lights, as well as workers getting pennies for pieces, well below minimum wage. 

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