Let the record show that Don Blankenship’s last public act in the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse on April 6 2016 was to reveal, openly and for the transcript, how far gone into delusion he’d become over the course of his career. In his final statement to the court, Blankenship insisted on positioning himself as a man who’d been unfairly accused: “It’s important to me that everyone knows I am not guilty of a crime,” he said, after offering the feeblest and most general condolences to the families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion six years before. Yet that was precisely and exactly what he was now—a convicted criminal, albeit one convicted of a mere misdemeanor. And then Judge Irene Berger, herself the daughter of a coal miner, hit Don Blankenship with the maximum allowable prison sentence of one year, and a $250,000 fine.
The court verdict made Blankenship the highest-ranking coal executive ever to be convicted of a workplace safety violation in West Virginia. The brevity of the court’s sentence notwithstanding, this was a dramatic reversal in how the legal system has dealt with mine bosses found to be in repeated violation of safety law. If the verdict isn’t overturned or lessened on appeal, Don Blankenship will become the only mine operator in WV history to be sentenced to anything like the maximum penalty for conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards.
The trial’s primary dramatic context, culturally if not strictly legally, was the killing blast at Upper Big Branch in April 2010. That Blankenship could even utter the words “not guilty” without collapsing under the weight of shame right there in the courthouse didn’t come as a shock. Unfortunately, that level of blatant hubris is an old and familiar story here. To those of us following the trial closely, the fact that Blankenship received the maximum penalty in federal court was the real surprise, the end result that very few of us anticipated.
It was especially notable because throughout the trial, and again between the conviction and the sentencing, Blankenship had made all the expected noises, delivered all the standard platitudes that get trotted out when miners die, when mountains get ripped up in chunks, when the soil and the root systems tumble into the streams and rivers, when the waste leaches into the groundwater, when rivers and creeks get poisoned, when those of us who live and work here are forced to deal with the runoff, the fallout, the waves of debris and fire and chemicals we’re constantly told are the unavoidable product of labor and business. Mostly these noises were delivered as subtext, through the arguments made by Blankenship’s defense team. But it was the same familiar script, the same culpability-avoiding two-step we’ve heard time and again.
In his pre-sentencing statement Blankenship euphemistically, and predictably, characterized the miners as “lost”: “The lost coal miners,” he said, “were great men.” But they weren’t lost. They weren’t mislaid, or out sick, or running late because they were around the corner at lunch. They were killed. They were killed, 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch site, on April 5 2010, when coal dust and methane ignited and blew fire through an improperly ventilated mine, a mine that had racked up over 1300 safety violations in the five years preceding the explosion, including two violations the very day before.
Even so, the rhetoric Blankenship and his legal team trotted out was the expected one, the one that’s worked for generations here when business interests and raw profit have been weighed against the rights, the wages, and even the lives of the people hired to go underground and pull up the product so it could be processed and sold. And when it didn’t work this time, when it became clear that Blankenship wasn’t going to be able to escape responsibility by appealing to the standard tropes of necessary risk and selfless sacrifice—when it became evident that he wasn’t going to be able to obfuscate and maneuver his way out of a conviction—you could see how completely it took him off guard. Early in the trial, whenever Don Blankenship left the courthouse he’d be smiling like a man enduring a brief but unavoidable inconvenience. By the end his face looked like a wet paper bag, the dark circles beneath his eyes heavier and blacker, when he realized that he wouldn’t be escaping even the very short prison sentence the law allows for the crime he’d committed.
The press photos were not kind to Don Blankenship. It’s common to say of disgraced public figures that they look like crooked used car salesmen. But that comparison fails to capture the deeply weird combination of personal mundanity and brazen arrogance that Blankenship exuded every time his picture made the news. Even engaged in an act as simple as walking from the courthouse steps to a waiting automobile, he looked as though he’d been caught in an act not only unethical, but somehow morally depraved. He had the lumpy physique and porkish jowls of a man shaped for lampooning in editorial cartoons, and a mustache like a cigarette butt dissolving in a sidewalk rain puddle. His deeds seemed all the uglier because the man who’d committed them looked so relentlessly ordinary, his chin soft and weak, his grin so forced it appeared to have been tightened with screws. When he smiled, the increasingly tense rearrangement of his features into a performance of harmlessness only made the overall effect more hideous. He looked somehow both dull and perverse in equal measure, like an assistant deacon caught in bed with the minister’s wife.
He never expected it would happen to him. He couldn’t believe it when it did. He said as much in the closing statement to the court—“I never thought I’d have a probation officer”—and why would he? Why would he expect to be held accountable when the law’s loopholes allowed mines slapped with safety violations to keep operating indefinitely as long as they filed appeals? Why would he expect to be held to ethical business standards when for years, local and state government supported the coal companies in building the economies of entire towns around the extractive industry, after which the companies folded and faded into the night, never reinvesting in those communities, leaving the towns, and the residents in them, to fend for themselves, so that local entrepreneurs who try to make it in former coal towns often find themselves closing their doors for lack of any business whatsoever? Why would Blankenship expect he’d ever be called out in a state that had made business, his style of business, so profitable, and at the clear expense of so many of us?
But then he was. He was called out by the court, which slapped him with the maximum sentence allowable. And after that, on the street, he was called out again by a man named Tommy Davis, whose son Cory, brother Timmy, and nephew Joshua were three of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion. Photographer F. Brian Ferguson, of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, snapped a photo of Davis that ought to hang in the West Virginia State House from now until the last tick of time. Davis, his right hand raised, his finger pointed past the camera at Blankenship, his eyes wild and staring with the fury brought on by permanent and unhealable loss, yelled as the convicted conspirator left the courthouse: “You don’t have a heart. You don’t miss your kids like we miss ours. I hold a picture, I hold a tombstone. You hold nothing.”
You hold nothing. That was it—that was the phrase I’d been listening for without realizing it, the terrible, rage-fueled indictment that the court couldn’t have delivered in such clear, precise terms. You hold nothing: Tommy Davis’ son Cory was, at 20, the youngest miner to be killed in the explosion at Upper Big Branch. And Ferguson’s picture of Davis calling that thunder down on the head of Don Blankenship was as gutting a shot as I’ve ever seen in any newspaper.
The article beneath that photo, detailing the reaction of the dead miners’ families to the Blankenship verdict, was written by David Gutman, whom I’d met two years before when we sat on a panel about journalistic coverage of the Elk River Spill at the Reed College of Media at WVU. Dave said that the morning of that spill, before the news had broken, he’d bent down to the water fountain at the newspaper office and recoiled at the stench coming from the head, the smell of the MCHM that Freedom Industries had allowed to seep into the Elk. I remember that smell clearly even today; I’m not likely to forget it, or the way it suffused the car as I drove water down to my family from two hours north, or how I felt when I found out my sister had bathed her infant daughter in that water before the leak had been reported.
Blackened air; churned-up earth; poison water; killing fire. How long, sweet Jesus? How long will these brutes be permitted to rob and befoul and blast and burn? When the verdict came in, my newsfeed seemed evenly split between those who were enraged that the sentence was so light, and those who were gobsmacked that anything like a penalty had been handed down at all. That surprise speaks a grim truth about how we’ve been conditioned to accept this sort of monstrous arrogance throughout history. But the core truth, and to my mind the central context for understanding what the Blankenship verdict means in the long term, is that the jury worked exactly within the parameters of the criminal code for conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards, which is, under law, a misdemeanor, even if those violations create measurably life-threatening conditions. And though I was as angered as most by the particulars of the sentence, the language of the court, the phrasing of it, was as pleasing to me as any long-overdue summons delivered to a man who’d been allowed to run riot long enough.
He said “I’m not guilty,” and the jury said, “Guilty.” He said, “They were lost,” and Tommy Davis said, “You hold nothing.” And I recalled how two years before, Freedom Industries’ Gary Southern tried to cut the press conference short on the first night of the Elk River Crisis by saying “It’s been a long day,” and the ABC reporter called him back to the microphone: “We have a lot of questions, and it’s been a long day for a lot of people who don’t have water.” In February of this year, Southern was sentenced to a month in jail for negligent discharge of a pollutant, causing a discharge of refuse, and violating a condition of a clean water act permit. And I thought about how for years, they’d walked away when they wanted to, when they were through with us; and I thought how gratified I was, at last, to finally see us begin getting in the last word.
Negligent, violation, conspiracy: For generations this was how the industry’s business was accomplished, with very little pushback and nothing much in the way of penalties. For all the blowhard palaver from operators and politicos in bed with the extraction industry about how the EPA and the federal government are engaged in a war on coal, the flat fact is that here in West Virginia, coal played itself. For decades the industry made money with both fists and skipped town when they’d sucked all they could out of us. If there was a war, it was waged against us: against the people who live here and work here, against the people who were sent down into darkness to draw fire for the nation, and who were treated as expendable when production fell below the mark. And now, with the coal industry in general decline, the smoke hasn’t even cleared; and here comes the new swarm of locusts, drilling and blasting and fracking and fouling up the place for all of us. Meet the new boss.
We deserve better. Better than the raw, sad mathematics of it: 1300 safety violations at Massey Energy over the five years before the explosion: a little over one violation for every foot below ground the miners were when the 2010 blast occurred. One year in prison: 12 days inside for every person killed. $250,000: $8620.69 per dead miner. If nothing else, the Blankenship verdict has revealed the cost to business, the real cost incurred, the actual risk in days and dollars, for putting a miner in killing harm’s way: A little under two weeks, and roughly the Blue Book value of a four-year-old Buick Regal sedan with a hundred thousand miles.
We deserve better, and always have. We deserve better than to hear someone sing that old song again. That song of a history of sacrifice and loss and backbreaking work is one I used to sing, and it’s one I used to love. My family taught it to me, and it’s one you probably know too:
Where it’s dark as a dungeon, and damp as the dew
Where the danger is double, and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls, where the sun never shines
Where it’s dark as a dungeon, way down in the mines
I hope Don Blankenship hears that song when he walks into a room and a door closes behind him that he can’t open again for a year. I hope he finally feels the walls push in around him like we’ve felt for generations. I hope the state legislature wakes its dead ass up and figures out that we’ve got an economy to rebuild, a good one this time, one that serves us all and serves us well. I hope we invest in the kids who want to stay and get educated and work and live and thrive. I hope we’ve set some kind of precedent over the past couple of years for getting good people involved in building this place up into something, and protecting it from the thugs who’d destroy it for money and return us all to darkness.
And I hope the price those thugs are made to pay is high. Because as hard as we’ve pushed back, as hard as we’re pushing now, as far as we’ve gone, it’s still not enough. It’s not enough. It’s not.