Massey CEO Blankenship On Mine Disaster: No Regrets
Don Blankenship, whose Upper Big Branch coal mine had been cited hundreds of times for safety violations before it blew up in April killing 29 workers, came to the National Press Club on Thursday to face the Washington press corps -- but not in order to express contrition.
Oh, no. There was none of that.
Instead, the Massey Energy CEO, widely considered to be the most arrogant and dangerous man in a dangerous and dying industry, lectured the assembled throng about global poverty, preventable disease, the national debt, highway deaths, physics, the relationship between facts and happiness -- and oh, yes, the need for the federal government to get off his back.
In hindsight, is there nothing Blankenship would have done differently before the worst mine disaster in 40 years? No.
Well, maybe one thing.
"What I could have done is be more like I normally am, and sued MSHA [the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] the first time they turned off a scrubber, instead of waiting until they turned off 43," Blankenship said.
In what he insisted at the time was not an act of retaliation, Blankenship sued MSHA last month for disapproving the use of scrubbers to take coal dust out of the air.
Blankenship said hesitating wasn't like him. But, he acknowledged, such lawsuits "get you a terrible reputation of being unreasonable."
In the latest in a litany of revelations about unsafe practices at the mine , NPR reported last week that two months before the blast, an electrician deliberately disabled a methane gas monitor on a continuous mining machine because the monitor repeatedly shut down the machine.
Ventilation issues appear at the heart of the several investigations into the explosion. Former Massey employees have told reporters the company routinely ignored federal requirements for airflow.
Blankenship didn't bat an eye when protesters from the Rainforest Action Network unfurled banners in front of him, saying "MASSEY COAL -- NOT CLEAN SAFE OR FOREVER."
"You can see there are people who have opinions without the discomfort of thought," he said, after the protesters were escorted out of the room.
Amanda Starbuck, one of the protesters, told the Huffington Post afterward that the group was trying "to send a clear message that Massey Energy are reckless, they're arrogant, and they're a big obstacle to moving toward a clean energy future that our president and country are pulling for. They are the BP of the coal industry."
Indeed, it's probably only thanks to BP's Tony Hayward that Blankenship isn't the most hated man in America.
The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward jotted down this exercise in self-justification:
I'm a realist. The politicians will tell you we're going to do something so this never happens again you won't hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable just as other accidents are in society. So, the idea that we can prevent it from happening again is one that I'm cautious not to say that, although I can tell you there is no one more motivated and intending to try harder to avoid it happening again than I am and Massey's management time is.
Blankenship offered a variety of history lessons to the audience, including one that described slavery, among other things, as examples of how "businesses always seek to have low cost labor and have a cost advantage, and that's something we have to be aware of."
There were plenty of howlers, but the prize might go to his insistence that mountaintop removal -- a particularly destructive form of mining which involves blowing the top off mountains, thereby destroying entire ecosystems -- was actually bringing "more wildlife" and "more wetlands" to Appalachia.
Blankenship dismissed reports that Massey miners live in fear of him. "We feel very good about what we've achieved in the area of communication with our employees," he said.
As an example, the notorious union-buster said the reason that all six recent union drives at Massey mines have failed was that the miners know how much the company cares about them.
He said it was an "almost inhuman insinuation" that anyone in his company had intentionally jeopardized any miner. "We certainly would never put profits above safety. Never have, never will."
So he doesn't feel at all guilty? "I think that the word guilty is not the right word," he said. "I feel that I don't want to experience it again. I feel sorry for the families."
While extolling the virtues of unfettered private enterprise, Blankenship had one bone to pick with some of his fellow CEOs. "I do think that American businesses need to be honest as opposed to being politically correct," he said.
Blankenship's pro-business message boiled down to this: "At the end of the day, productivity divided by population equals quality of life." That maxim earned him wild applause from half a dozen ringers at a back table.
"I consider myself a word I created myself, a competitionist," he said.
There's probably a very special word for Blankenship, but that isn't it.
Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety News and one of the most astute chroniclers of the mine industry, told the Huffington Post Thursday that Blankenship is nothing if not consistent.
"He's never changed," she said. "You can watch his speeches, you can watch his testimony, he's never changed his tune. It doesn't surprise me at all."
Here's the video from C-SPAN.