We have hade several headlines in the last week. We have had anti-LBGT bills passed in North Carolina and Mississippi, with one pending in Tennessee. We have had primary votes. We have had the Panama Papers being released.
One thing that has fallen from the front pages is the sentencing of Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Company. Blankenship was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $250,000 for a misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine.
The only problem with this sentence is that those safety standard violations resulted in an explosion that killed 29 mine workers. During Blankenship’s tenure at Massey Mines, a total of 52 people were killed in their mines.
This is not as unusual as it may sound. The mining industry has been plagued with problems from the very start. Thousands of miners have lost their lives over at least a century. The slow progress in mine safety started in 1916, when the first federal child labor law made it more difficult for mines to operate with children under the age of 16. (Previously, children as young as 8 were forced to work.) It wasn’t until 1941 that federal inspectors were able to enter and inspect mines for safety, and another few decades of disasters led to the Coal Act of 1969, which required annual inspections for all operations.
Even with the new regulations, companies really didn’t suffer too much when there was an accident. Thousands of companies with poor federal safety grades failed to pay their fines — sometimes for up to 10 years — and continued to operate even after a deadly incident and while owing up to millions of dollars to the government according to an NPR study.
As an example, a coal mine explosion at a Kentucky Darby mine in 2006 killed two men instantly, and another three died of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to escape. The company that ran the operation was slapped with hefty fines, but wasn’t exactly forced to pay up.
State and federal records list Ralph Napier Sr. as Kentucky Darby’s co-owner and legally responsible corporate official. The mining company he and some partners once operated still owes $500,000 in penalties for the Kentucky Darby disaster. Napier also controls eight other mines that have $2.4 million in delinquent fines. …
The mines that Napier controlled mined 1.4 million tons of coal while they were delinquent, according to federal records. That’s more than $89 million worth, based on average prices in that part of Kentucky reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In this case, Blankenship’s sentence is either a precedent that shows no executive is invincible or is an unthinkable miscarriage of justice. But many people agree one year was not enough. He was convicted of criminality in labor practices that blatantly ignored safety protocols if they threatened profit.
U.S. Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez said in a press release
No prison sentence and no amount of money can bring back the 29 men who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch, but my sincere hope is that this sentence can offer some measure of closure for the families of those miners. That said, this is a clear case of the punishment not fitting the crime. This sentence is the maximum allowable under the law, but regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk.
The United Mine Workers of America put the deaths in a much more dramatic, and correct context. UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said:
There were 52 people killed at Massey mines while [Blankenship] was CEO of that company. The penalty he has received means he will get one week per death. That’s a travesty. Don Blankenship deserves to go to jail, for that is surely where he belongs. And although this sentence will not begin to make him atone for his crimes, there is a higher court he will answer to someday, and I have complete faith that the justice he receives there will be more than adequate.
The other thing that is being missed in this case is what each party is trying to do for workers. The policies of the Republican Party are at the heart of the case. They have worked diligently to keep real safety measures from the mines. They want to do away with OSHA. They want to allow companies to “police themselves” in such matters.
Unfortunately, the Democrats don’t seem to interested in this case either. Not one candidate has spoken out about the injustice suffered at the hands of Blankenship and his sentence. Mine safety has always been a problem. Accidents like this have become less common, but they are still there and in most cases, preventable.
Why is it that if a person is convicted of killing another on the street that guilty person is sentenced to life in prison. Yet, when a CEO fosters an environment that deliberately ignores safety regulations that result in 29 people being killed, he gets one year in jail?
The sentence that Blankenship was given may be unprecedented, but it was a slap in the face to the families and other miners who worked for Massey Energy Company. The UMWA said it best. One week for every miner killed working for Blankenship is a travesty at best.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing CEOs and even Governors say “I’m sorry” when people’s lives are lost and/or put in jeopardy by their actions. The laws do not favor the workers or people in this country. They favor those in charge. This case, and others like it prove that beyond reasonable doubt.
The upcoming elections in November, both at the state and federal levels, will have a direct impact on safety laws like these. One party favors people over money. One party favors money over people. It is your choice which party is better for the future of our country. I choose the party that favors people over money. For me, our lives are more important than money!