Disgraced Former Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship to be Tried in U. S. Federal Court

by Catherine Dees

He drove the men like mules, pushing coal production with a cavalier disregard for the safety of the workers in the Upper Big Branch mine he ruled, haranguing mine managers, supervisors and miners with his callous and calculating drive for profit over people.  Will justice be served in the hearts and minds of family members who are left still grieving for their lost loved ones?

Donald Leon Blankenship, once a mighty coal lord with Massey Energy, sat laughing quietly with his four attorneys, his deep voice audible all the way to the back row of the court.  Families who lost sons, fathers, brothers, nephews, husbands, and uncles in the worst mine disaster in 40 years filed into the U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia in Beckley, WV.  Also in attendance were local activists and members of the press.  Everyone noted Blankenship in his grey suit, red tie, and ever-so-relaxed demeanor, even resting his arms, draped over the back of his chair, seemingly confidant and unconcerned about his court appearance, arraignment, and bond hearing.

Court sketch of Don Blankenship with attorney courtesy of Jessie Corlis.
Court sketch of Don Blankenship with attorney courtesy of Jessie Corlis.

He did not behave like a man charged with four federal counts. First, “Conspiracy to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards” at the Upper Big Branch South Mine where 29 coal miners died in an explosion on April 5, 2010. Second alleges that Blankenship conspired to defraud the U.S.  Third and fourth allege that Blankenship made “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the government and the Security and Exchange Commission.

Court sketch of U. S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervoot courtesy of Patrick Williams.
Court sketch of U. S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort courtesy of Patrick Williams.

United States Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort, however, pointedly admonished Blankenship in front of the court, saying he noted a “disdain for the supervisory role of the federal government” and further speculated how Blankenship may well continue this attitude of perceiving “this court and these proceedings with equal disdain.”

When the bond conditions were being discussed between the U.S. Attorneys and Blankenship’s legal staff, he appeared for the first time to comprehend just how restricted his life would be.  He was not allowed release on his own recognizance and had to post a $5 million cash bond – which if he violates any terms of his required court appearances will be forfeited – is ordered to stay within the direct confines of the Southern District of WV and Pike County, Kentucky;  he is allowed to travel to Washington, DC to meet with his attorneys; he is not allowed freedom of movement in the US without pre-authorization from the court and may not leave the country as he was forced to relinquish his passport to officials; he may not have firearms or animals in his possession; he is not allowed any contact with former colleagues or UBB victims, specifically told not to tamper with potential witnesses per the issued gag order.

He glanced at family members several times before the proceedings and in an unexpected moment actually approached the spectators after bond conditions were set.  Those who lost family members softly gasped, wept, and hugged each other as they absorbed the strict conditions set by the Magistrate for Blankenship’s restricted living arrangements.  Only one man, a former employee and supporter, extended his hand in friendship, although it appeared that security personnel did not allow the two to shake hands.

Climate Ground Zero will continue to report on the trial, beginning with the pre-trial hearing date of January 6 and trial which is scheduled for January 26, 2015.


Witnessing the Subversion of Democracy in West Virginia

Rahall tells constituents that 90% of the work he does is “symbolic”

Subversion of Democracy – Images by antrim caskey

As a resident of the Coal River Valley in Raleigh County, West Virginia, I sat in a meeting with a handful of Appalachian Ambassadors at Congressman Nick Joe Rahall’s office on July 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. It was stunning to see the 18th-term Congressman stare in silence — his only real reply — as Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe and Vernon Haltom described the horror and the heartbreak of living with the long-term effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. Armed with the latest Hendryx report, which cites the connection between increased chance of birth defects in newborns with living near mountaintop removal operations, these Power-Hillbillies put this latest evidence in front of a distracted Rahall and announced their demand for an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal. Rahall had nothing to say other than trying to pass the buck, first to, Alpha Natural Resources (Massey Energy’s new name), then Office of Surface Mining (OSM). What we witnessed in Representative Nick Joe Rahall’s office is what Bobby Kennedy Jr calls the “subversion of democracy in the state of West Virginia,” and we stared back in silence, in anticipation, as Rep. Rahall, stone dead in the eyes, the dome of the Capitol filling the large window behind him, said nothing to us West Virginians demanding to be represented.

This is what the subversion of democracy looks like in West Virginia, where sprawling corporations have woven their money-hungry tentacles all throughout the Appalachians in search and removal of coal, seizing more that 550 mountaintops and 5000 miles of headwater streams; annihilating hundreds of mountain hamlets, so many treasures, spurned with contempt. All of the normal paths to correct injustices like Massey’s chronic corporate nuisances, like the courts and regulatory agencies, have been compromised beyond belief. Instead, West Virginians face a state Supreme Court where the Chief Justice Brent Benjamin was elected with 3 million dollars of help from the local coal company, Massey Energy.

Kucinich to Coal River Mountain – Images by antrim caskey
Finally, it was Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio who heard us during the House Oversight Committee hearing where Rep. Kucinich proposed a visit to see the atrocities he’s been hearing so much about, especially in the brilliant new documentary, The Last Mountain. Kucinich repeatedly demanded that he “wants to view specific sites in the Coal River Valley.” We anticipate Congressman Kucinich’s visit and we would welcome Congressional investigations into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. It is imperative that you act on this issue.

Where does your energy come from? Check here.

Antrim Caskey
Rock Creek, WV

Spruce No. 1 Mining Continues Despite EPA Veto

“They are going forward as if the permit hadn’t been denied.” –Jimmy Weekley

In the struggle to end mountain top removal, we don’t often have occasions to celebrate, so the December 18th announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency had vetoed the permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine in West Virginia was reason to pop the champagne corks.  After all, this was the largest mountain top removal operation ever approved by the EPA, covering an area larger than Pittsburgh. And it seemed to signal a sea change for the way the EPA does business. Up until then the EPA had approved every mine permit that they reviewed since 1972, when the agency was created to enforce the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other laws passed by Congress in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga River fire and a slew of other environmental disasters that had captured the nation’s attention during the turbulent 1960s.

Certainly if you were reading  the headlines, checking your e-mail, or getting the numerous fund raising appeals from well meaning environmental groups claiming victory you would be right to believe that here was a victory grasped from the jaws of defeat, a testament of the strength of our movement and our ability pressure the government to enforce the laws.  It was the death of mountain top removal.

But there is more to the story.
Continue reading “Spruce No. 1 Mining Continues Despite EPA Veto”