06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Negligence in the Coal Fields

We're seeing a lot of Don Blankenship on TV. Again. He's the CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the mine where at least 25 died underground in a "horrific" explosion Monday, the worst US coal disaster of its kind in a quarter century.

Typically, Blankenship is not shying away from publicity. So now we see him deflect charges that Massey's egregious record of safety violations at its Upper Big Branch mine might well have caused a buildup of dangerous methane gas that blew up.

We've seen Blankenship before. He had a similar role after 12 died in the Sago Mine disaster of 2006.

He is no shrinking violet, to say the least. After all, it was Don Blankenship whose company was facing a 50 million dollar lawsuit, who spent three million to unseat a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court who was considered unfavorable to Massey.

It was such a blatant abuse that last year, the US Supreme Court ruled the bought-and-paid-for West Virginia justice had to remove himself from the case.

Perhaps, it's time for Don Blankenship to get involved with the courts again. This time, as a defendant. The charge: Negligent Homicide, called "Involuntary Manslaughter" in West Virginia.

This is the state's legal definition: "Involuntary Manslaughter involves the accidental causing of death of another person, although unintended, which death is the proximate result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life."

Let's see, Massey's hugely profitable Upper Big Branch mine had accumulated more than 1,300 official charges of safety violations since 2005. In the last month alone there have been 50, including a dozen citations for alleged failure to properly ventilate deadly dangerous, highly volatile methane gas.

it is still unproven, but the operating theory is that Monday's blast was possibly caused by a tiny spark that ignited the methane explosion that was the "causing of death."

Obviously, it will require an investigation to pin that down, and another to decide what practices were to blame and who decided what they would be and whether that person or persons, in the name of profits, was guilty of "...negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life."

Plain and simply, the police and prosecutors need to pursue this case. And if those who run Massey can be shown to be culpable beyond a reasonable doubt, they need to thrown into prison. The sentence for Involuntary Manslaughter, as just one possible charge, in West Virginia, is a year in prison. For each case. In this tragedy, at least 25 lives were lost.

It is important to repeat that no criminal conduct has been proven against Don Blankenship. Or anybody. Or that there was criminal conduct in this case.

But the families of the victims have a right to find out. We all do. There must be justice. Justice that is not bought and paid for.

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