CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Relatives of the 29 men who died at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County are tired of waiting. A handful of those family members gathered Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston calling for justice to be served. Their definition of justice is former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and other high-ranking corporate officers of Massey going to prison.

“They shouldn’t be walking around free,” said Shereen Adkins who lost her son Jason in the explosion. “They should be charged with something. I’m sure they have enough evidence, there’s no doubt.”

But as the fourth anniversary of the 2010 disaster approached, the convictions in the criminal investigation have come on lower level Massey Energy officials and mainly for warning others at a mining complex that a federal investigator had arrived. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said again Wednesday the criminal investigation continues and remains a top priority.

But the families are frustrated and adding to the frustration is the new documentary “Upper Big Branch — Never Again.”  The production was funded by Blankenship who maintains a natural gas inundation was to blame for the blast.  Other separate investigations blame unsafe conditions in the mine with malfunctioning equipment and a massive buildup of coal dust.

“He can point fingers just like he did on his documentary,” said Tommy Davis who was working at Upper Big Branch the day of the explosion. Davis lost his son, brother, and nephew, but managed to escape along with another nephew. “He didn’t want to take responsibility for his actions.”

Davis said many were aware of unsafe working conditions at the Massey mine, but feared for their job if they raised the issue.  He said some did and were fired, others tended to go along with what was corporate policy just to stay employed.

“He’s the chief executive officer at Massey.  He’s the man. He could have done anything he wanted,” said Davis. “If he came in and felt like MSHA did something wrong, he could have shut it down, gone to the table, and worked it out. Did he?  No, because he’s a money hungry son of a bitch. He wanted to turn that coal into money.”

Davis and others said they live their lives today one day at a time and try to find the strength to move forward.

“It’s an everyday thing, you never get over it.  You’ve got to go on, but it’s hard. It’s every day,” said Gina Jones, who’s husband Deano Jones died in the mine. “Don Blankenship should be put in jail.  He’s murdered 29 men.”

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Comments

  • Marlys

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  • Aaron

    "Production over safety. That's what I hang it on Blankenship."

    It was getting difficult to follow below.

    I'm curious, why not the Board of Directors? Or other high ranking officials in Massey? I'm not absolving Blankenship because I have friends and family who worked for Massey so I know how he is but he wasn't alone in the mantra you describe above. It still exist at Alpha today.

    So why only Don Blankenship?

    • Big Bob- E

      Because Blankenship was so brazen about his willingness to challenge the MSHA's authority...he viewed them as the enemy of coal!!! Said so publicly on many occasions!! Can't rewrite history Aaron.....

    • The bookman

      I didn't mean to imply only Blankenship. He is a hands on type guy, and was well known for pushing production. I'm sure his enablers are dirty as well and they all should meet Justice for their role. I believe we are in the same camp on this , but as we usually do, get stuck on the finer details. Appreciate all the detail and debate.

  • if it was my family

    @lee
    hey Blankenship family member, bite me

  • The bookman

    I have always felt that Don Blankenship was a polarizing figure, but that would require a few people to really like him. I guess he is better described as the quintessential villain. He has blood on his hands, no doubt about it.

    MSHA as the chief regulating body for the safe operation of mines bears some responsibility, but to equate a regulatory and inspection agency's duty to that of Massey, the entity responsible for the maintenance of a the safe work site, places too much culpability on MSHA and gives Massey too easy a path. Miners and management all know the dangers of allowing the accumulation of coal dust, and it is ultimately their duty to operate in a safe manner. I'm sure it was brought to management's attention, and the safety concerns of the boots on the ground were likely told to get back to work.

    Blankenship would do well to shoulder the blame, sell his WV home, and see if Spike Maynard is interested in splitting the cost of a retirement villa on the French Riviera. He really has no place here any longer.

    • Aaron

      I do not believe MSHA bears the same responsibility as Massey. Whereas Massey's responsibility is unwavering every day, MSHA's responsibilities increases as violations increase. At some point, they must take action.

      To use your analogy below, if a state trooper is assigned to "inspect" you periodically to ensure you are in compliance in the law and he notes you exceeding the speed limit by a few miles per hour on an occasional basis, then his pulling you over and slapping your wrist with a small fine may be justifiable. But if you continually violate the speed limit by 15 mph or more, then a large fine is not only warranted but expected. If that same trooper observes you daily, drinking and driving at high rates of speeds in a reckless manner, endangering everyone you come in contact with, he has an obligation to take you off the road.

    • Big Bob-E

      Exactly right bookman...the ultimate responsibility for the UBB disaster falls squarely on the shoulders of Don Blankenship. Well said my friend...

    • Shadow

      I watched the video and if the ride in shown was in the UBB, it looked to me, a layman, that the area was rock dusted. I can understand that any debris can be tossed by a big explosion and that includes rock dust as discussed in the video. With no survivors, it is difficult for me to understand how a decision that it was improperly rock dusted can be made. Since rock dusting is such an important part of explosion prevention, we denigrate the miners that went into that area. We accuse them of being unconcerned for their safety and the safety of the fellow workers. I find this hard to believe.

      • The bookman

        There is a difference between being unconcerned with safety and comfortable with a certain level of danger. The leading violation nearly 3:1 to its nearest citation is the accumulation of combustible material, or coal dust. Miners see it, supervisors see it, management sees it. When safety dictates the operation, the dangers of a catastrophic event are reduced. When production dictates the operation, safety is compromised. Miners don't call those shots. Management does and supervisors enforce it. I see your point about responsibility, but you also have to be realistic that sometimes your comfort level over time reduces your fear of the present danger. Terrible tragedy, and horrible that Blankenship is concerned about his legacy in regard to UBB, when he knows the truth.

        • Shadow

          There is no question that there has to be a trade-off between safety and production. The final authority exists with the man at the wall. I find it difficult to blame a man that was miles away from a situation that, if existing, could have been corrected at that wall. I don't believe that those men were stupid and entered into an unsafe area. That is why I believe that it was the crack that let in the ethane and produced the explosive atmosphere. So far, I have yet to see any scientific discussion on that subject, all I have seen is "Misplaced Aggression" against Blankenship.and Massey.

  • Shadow

    The one thing that I haven't been able to understand is: If the mine was so unsafe and Massey so bad, why was anyone working there. UBB was not a Gulag. Anyone could walk away and find work elsewhere. We are Free Americans.

    • steve

      They were there because in our line of work,Where else you gonna make almost $100 k? its easy to say that if your an outsider to this industry.Only those with umwa representation are truly empowered to raise safety concerns unless you individually choose to walk away and thats hard to do with bills & babbies to feed.

  • Pickle Barrel

    After 4 years you would think the Feds would have gathered enough evidence to put away Don Blankenship for his role in UBB. The fact that he hasn't been indicted is a good indicator they don't have the goods on him.

  • Harpers Ferry

    I'm pretty sure, 100% sure actually, that Don B. won't be prosecuted because if he is, then the ENTIRE state government of WV, including Manchin and Capito, will prosecuted as well.

  • Aaron

    I agree that Don Blankenship and BOD members should at the very least be tried for allowing the conditions to exist at the mines they were responsible for.

    But I also believe that Joe Main and other high ranking MSHA officials should be in court with them, facing the same charges. While greed or profits are not a good reason for risking the lives of others, that is more of an excuse than MSHA officials who knew of the conditions at Massey mines and did not force the issue on inspections.

    • Big Bob-E

      Aaron...while I respect your right to your many opinions on nearly every subject...you are just flat-out wrong on this one. This one falls squarely on the lap of Massey Energy and Don Blankenship. Don Blankenship had politicians and judges like coins in his pockets...MSHA had no chance to make anything stick.

      • Aaron

        You couldn't be more wrong. Ken Ward, as liberal a reporter as there his broke the NIOSH report in his blog, simply google "NIOSH panel says proper MSHA inspections and enforcement likely could have prevented the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster
        March 23, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr."

        NPR, as liberal a media site as there is posted a story as well.

        Google their story at Report: Mine Safety Agency 'Could Have Prevented' Deadly Disaster.

        Among other things, NIOSH found that not only was MSHA lacking in enforcing deficiencies at UBB, they failed in other mines as well including Sago.

        From the NPR story.

        "And in a direct rebuke of the agency's response to five other recent mine disasters, the panel notes "a remarkable overlap in the array of enforcement lapses identified." There was "a very similar constellation of shortcomings" despite five MSHA internal reviews recommending corrective action for the agency.

        The five disasters include the methane explosions at the Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama in 2001, the explosions at the Sago mine in West Virginia and Darby mine in Kentucky in 2006, the fire at Massey's Aracoma mine in West Virginia also in 2006, and two mine collapses in Utah in 2007 at the Crandall Canyon mine.

        In all, 70 coal miners perished in those tragedies and the Upper Big Branch explosion."

        Probably one of Robert C Byrd's last meaningful acts was his very public rebuke of Joe Main for MSHA failures.

        Why in the world Bob would you try to excuse the failures of government regulators?

        • Big Bob-E

          It's easy Aaron...Don Blankenship could have idled that mine with one simple phone call...evidence concluded...whether you like or not...that they operated in direct violation of MSHA citations. Massey lawyers worked diligently to keep those violations tied up in federal courts...you know...due process...rights to appeal. I agree that Joe Main probably knew of the conditions at UBB...hell everybody associated knew...but don't under estimate the political powered that Don Blankenship yielded...the kind that could make things like violations go away or get so bogged down in red tape that they may as we'll not even existed. Don't be so naive Aaron...that is business as usual for big business in this country.

          • Big Bob-E

            Aaron...big business has been able to skirt federal laws since the the days of prohibition...you can blame those who were charged with enforcing those laws...but that justifies the businesses who we're violating those laws...sort of "if nobody sees it...it ain't a crime." Obviously you're a big business guy...you are so wrong on this one that I'm actually embarrassed for you!!!

          • Aaron

            As a plant manager years ago, I would not allow the person in charge of safety be involved in production and the gentleman in charge of production could not say no to safety training without my approval. While there were occasional times that I held on safety training, any inspection or safety issue trumped production every time. As a result, in 10 years, I had ZERO lost time accidents and 3 OSHA recordable incidents, 2 of which I wrote the employees up for unsafe safety actions. My RIR was .78 during my management.

            I understand safety and production. I'm not excusing Don Blankenship but there was a reason Congress passed the Mining Act and there is a reason we spend so much on MSHA.

            The reason is the Don Blankenship's of the world. If MSHA is not doing it's job, why are we spending the money for?

          • The bookman

            Production over safety. That's what I hang it on Blankenship.

          • Aaron

            That is no excuse for allowing it to happen and it in no way exonerates MSHA inspectors.

            I don't know how much dust is too much dust any more than I know how much speed is too much speed so I'll leave that to the experts.

            What I will not do is excuse the state trooper who allows the average speed to creep up to 85 or more that results in multi-car accident that results in numerous deaths any more than I will excuse the MSHA inspector who ignores coal dust because it's common place.

            I might tend to agree with you if we were discussing multiple coal mining companies but for some reason, even though (as you point out) all mines struggle with mine dust, Massey seems to be the culprit of a "pattern of violations."

            Why is that?

          • The bookman

            Then the trooper responsible for morning control of speed on the lower reaches of I79 better start sharpening his pencil as everyone is going 80. The mining industry struggles to maintain coal dust buildup, and any mine at any time is probably in violation. It is a constant struggle. And 3:1 to its nearest violation, coal dust accumulation is the single most cited violation by MSHA. Kind of like going a bit over the limit.

          • Aaron

            If that trooper is responsible for monitoring your actions on that stretch of roadway, everyday and one of his primary job responsibilities is to ensure that you specifically operate your vehicle in compliance with state and federal laws, yes he is culpable and equally responsible.

          • The bookman

            Aaron,

            If I'm driving down the highway at 80MPH texting and run off the road and kill myself and the occupants of those inside my vehicle, is it my fault or due to the lack of enforcement by the state trooper who clocked me at 10MPH over the speed limit 3 miles back and let me go?

            I was breaking the law, operating my vehicle in an unsafe manner, and posed a public safety threat. Is the trooper culpable, equally culpable, or not responsible?

          • Aaron

            I'm not naive and were the conditions recent, I might agree with you but they were ongoing, MSHA knew of them and failed miserably. If MSHA wanted the mine shut down or wanted Massey in compliance, they would have shut it down and put Massey in compliance. It's that simple. They didn't issue a pattern of violations because of an alleged computer glitch? My arse. You and I both know why Massey and Blankenship wielded the power they did and it had nothing to do with due process. Before something can be bough, it has to be for sale. MSHA officials are as every bit as guilty as Massey officials. The only people I've heard disagree with that in the last 4 years are MSHA officials.

      • Billy

        I hate to, but I believe Aaron is spot on. I worked as a contractor on Massey property for several years.

  • College Ave

    Disclaimer: I'm pro coal. I believe it is possible to responsibly mine and burn coal.

    With that, I think Don Blankenship might be sociopathic. (Someone who is sociopathic has little or no regard for the feelings or needs of others.)

    If Don Blankenship had a genuine concern for mine safety and sympathy for the families of the men who died he would've tried to meet with those families individually to explain what he believes to have been the cause or causes behind the explosion.

    This documentary is about Don Blankenship's need to care for his own identity.

  • ConservativeRealist

    The families have every right to grieve and be upset. They suffered tremendously and their pain echoed across this nation.

    The legal system does not have the luxury of factoring in those emotions. It must act based on fact(s) and the rule(s) of law. I am not saying Blankenship is not guilty nor am I defending his actions. I am saying that lynch mobs are born out of anarchy and are driven by furor and many an innocent was hanged before all of the facts came out.

    I am also compelled to question the family member who cites his failing to report safety violations and/or take action for fear of losing his job. Does he then not bear some responsibility to (a) fix what was unsafe or, (b) report it - not to protect his job but to save his relative's life? How is his valuing a dollar from a paycheck different than Blankenship's valuing a dollar from profits? I ask these questions not to be heartless or cruel but because these are the same questions that would be posed in a deposition and or to him, as a witness, in front of a jury.

  • if it was my family

    if it was my kid, they would not have to prosecute, there would be some slow walking and family crying in the Blankenship family

    • Lee

      if it was my family talk is cheap now crawl back under your rock.