His shameless contempt for working people is business as usual in West Virginia
By Michael M. Barrick
I was with my uncle once when he was appealing a local property tax assessment. He was told that he had the right to appeal, but that the appeals board could, if it wanted, actually raise his taxes if they deemed it appropriate. They could also uphold it, or reduce it, but that initial caveat was enough to give pause.
It’s too bad that isn’t the scenario faced by Don Blankenship as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He just recently completed his paltry one-year prison sentence for that conviction, which was based on charges after 29 coal miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy. Blankenship was its CEO and court testimony revealed that he was intimately involved in the conscious efforts to violate mine safety standards – violations that eventually led to the explosion that killed the UBB miners. These facts were supported by the “Report to the Governor” by the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel. It characterized the April 5, 2010, explosion: as “ … a failure of basic coal mine safety practices.”
So, if there was justice in this country, Blankenship could appeal, but would face these options, as did my uncle:
- Conviction upheld
- Conviction overturned
- Conviction upheld, and the judges rule that the one-year sentence was a perversion of justice and that Blankenship is to immediately be returned to prison for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately only the first two options are available. So, the families of those killed at UBB are again subjected to another news cycle of Don Blankenship pretending he is not only innocent, but as he wrote in his little pamphlet after his conviction, “An American Political Prisoner.”
Meanwhile, surviving family members of the UBB tragedy are unwilling prisoners to the memories of their lost loved ones, for that and photographs is all that is left of them.
This, sadly, is too typical of the stories out of West Virginia. Don Blankenship got by with murder. His self-published book is infuriating; his continuing denials and appeals nauseating.
The state of West Virginia is the poster child for the horribly negative effects upon working class people by crony capitalists. This is not news. Sadly, to a large extent, the people of the Mountain State have brought this upon ourselves. We elect people to office who not only refuse to ensure proper laws and regulations are in place to protect miners and all of the state’s workers, but also instead roll them back.
The discovery of coal, gas and oil throughout the state in the 19th century led to an unholy alliance among industrialists and politicians; to this day, it continues to subjugate the people of West Virginia for its own personal profit. The judiciary is next to useless, as it is full of minions financed by – you guessed it – Blankenship. The new governor, Jim Justice, not only has a record of ignoring and delaying payment of fines for his own mining operations, he is the state’s richest man. He talks the game, but his record suggests that his preferential concern is for his cronies, not his constituents.
Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is known throughout the state as the “Department of Everything Permitted.” And, that was before Justice purged it of previous top officials who were constantly criticized by environmental and public health advocates. In comparative hindsight, they were true champions of the people. So, despite the evidence of extreme threats to public health and the environment, Mountaintop Removal permits are rubber-stamped by DEP, despite the best efforts of citizens and environmental groups such as Coal Mountain Watch, OVEC, and countless others.
Meanwhile, anyone attending the various meetings for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has witnessed the collusion among industry, politicians and law enforcement, in scenes reminiscent of the West Virginia Mine Wars when private detectives and local cops worked for the coal companies. At one meeting in Jackson’s Mill in 2014, I saw several hundred residents – some who had driven more than two hours over the state’s winding roads – leave in total disgust. They saw that the cards had been stacked against them before they walked through the door. What had been billed by industry officials as a “town hall” was really an opportunity to spew forth propaganda. They aligned themselves as if at a trade show. There was absolutely no opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a public forum that would have allowed for give-and-take. The gas company knows how to silence citizens. But just in case they failed, standing outside were several county deputies dressed in full riot gear.
The message was delivered loud and clear: We’re in charge, this is a show, and there is nothing you can do about it.
It is this absolute control of West Virginia’s economy and political system by the fossil fuel industry that allows them to be disdainful of the people of West Virginia – and to cause Don Blankenship to delude himself into thinking he’s a political prisoner. The truth is, he is simply another fat cat conducting business as usual in West Virginia, and getting by with murder in the process.
West Virginia’s state motto is “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”
Well, we aren’t. In fact, it is we, not Don Blankenship, which are the political prisoners. If only we had the fight in us that Blankenship has. How long will we be prostrate at the feet of the likes of Blankenship?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
On Twitter: @appchronicle
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Causes of coal’s decline are free market forces
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Claims by coal industry officials that President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are waging a “War on Coal” are nothing more than propaganda. One of their own proved that recently when speaking at the West Virginia Coal Association meeting here. Ernie Thrasher, CEO of Pennsylvania-based exporting firm Xcoal Energy told the Jan. 28 gathering, “We’ve got a lot of things working against us that we don’t have any influence on,” according to a story by reporter Jared Hunt of the Charleston Daily Mail.
In short, the free market – not the EPA – is creating a bleak outlook for the industry.
In a rare moment of candor, Mr. Thrasher revealed the truth about the coal industry’s decline. That is because, according to the Daily Mail report, “While exports once helped buoy U.S. coal producers, exporters will face tough international markets for at least three to four years…” It added, “Coal accounts for about half of West Virginia’s exports. In the early part of the decade, growth in international coal markets helped push state coal exports to record levels — $5.3 billion in 2011 and $7.4 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But as the market began to soften in 2013, total state coal exports fell 39 percent to about $4.5 billion.”
The problem is as simple as the first lesson of economics – price is set by supply and demand. Hunt reported, “Thrasher said that while there’s still demand for coal worldwide, the problem is just too much supply. That’s keeping international prices at depressed levels. It’s not just a coal problem, he said. The same factors are affecting other commodities, including oil, natural gas and iron ore. ‘The problem is that there’s too much of everything in the world today,’ Thrasher said.”
While the world economy has been growing since coming out of the economic crisis of 2008, that growth has slowed from 3.5 percent to 2.5 percent. He cited also China economic policy, financial stimulus packages adopted by many nations in response to the 2008 worldwide recession, poor investments and overproduction by coal companies, and “…extraordinary weather-related events between 2009 and 2012, including avalanches in Canada and floods in Australia, (which) temporarily curtailed production in those coal producing regions.” (There was no indication if he recognized the irony of climate change having a negative impact upon the coal industry).
Thrasher warned, “You just can’t mine coal and sell it at the same price you did in 2005.” The article continued, “He said many companies will likely have to sell or restructure, or go out of business altogether, in the coming years in light of the expected market conditions. ‘If you’re patient and have the financial wherewithal, you might be able to weather the next few years,’ Thrasher said.”
So, the mythical “War on Coal” must be recognized for what it is – an attempt by the coal industry to distract us from the real issue we must consider – the proven, detrimental impact of coal production and use upon people, air, water and eco-systems, in particular in Appalachia. Of course, the industry wants us to believe that the EPA and the president are the ones “killing jobs.” It is ironic, to put it mildly, that the coal industry would feign concern for its workforce in light of the industry’s history, including a century of disregard for safety and the resurgent epidemic of black lung disease.
The fact that the coal industry is being disingenuous regarding the cause of its decline demonstrates how the people of Appalachia can be adversely impacted by not only the tactics of the industry, but the elected officials the industry hand-picks and finances. Additionally, there are very, very few truly independent press or media outlets in the region. So, this triumvirate of industry, politicians and the press, which places profits and power over the welfare of people and the land – is effectively stifling honest debate regarding the costs and benefits of the coal industry.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project, which is assisting with the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” conference scheduled for April in Charleston. Learn more here.