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Massey Energy: Dirty Coal in Appalachia

October 4, 2009

“Massey has the most unconscionable coal mining operation in Appalachia.”                                                                          Julia Bonds, Co-Director, Coal River Group  

Coal company Massey Energy isn’t shy about its opposition to “environmental extremists” (ie, people who support policies based on the abundance of scientific evidence that human activities are irreparably changing the global climate). Massey was a main sponsor of a recent anti-environmental rally intended to pit jobs against progressive climate change policies. As Massey chair Don L. Blankenship asked in the New York Times this week, “How can they be so confident that man is changing the world climate?”

A better question might be, “How can a corporate criminal like Massey still be allowed to operate?”

Massey is currently the target of mass protests against its mountaintop removal mining. Even before the recent civil disobedience involving movie star Darryl Hannah and climate scientist James Hansen at Massey operations, local communities supported by thousands of Americans have for years fought against this ongoing destruction. Calling mountaintop removal “One of the greatest environmental and human rights catastrophes in American history,” the group Appalachian Voices points out that the practice is favored by Massey and other coal companies in part because it reduces their labor force, compared to conventional mining methods.

That’s right: it’s not jobs versus the environment. It’s Massey lay-offs versus the environment.

Massey is the fourth largest U.S. coal company, controlling 2.3 billion tons, or about one-third of all the coal reserves in Central Appalachia. Company operations include nineteen Appalachian mining operations valued at $2.6 billion in 2008.

Massey’s record as a corporate criminal is lengthy and brutal. A 2006 fire at a Massey mine cost two miners their lives; their evacuation was impeded by missing ventilation walls that Massey still had not installed a year after the fire. In fact, from six months to a year after the fire, federal inspectors cited the Massey mine for more than 170 safety violations.

At trial, lawyers for the widows of the two miners produced memos showing Blankenship was heavily involved in the mine’s day-to-day operations, including one memo in which Blankenship told plant managers to ignore anyone (presumably meaning federal regulators) who stood in the way of their sole job: to “run coal.” The lawyers asked the jury to hold Blankenship personally responsible for the miner’s deaths.

But in 2008, Massey made a deal with the Justice Department, agreeing to guilty charges on 10 criminal counts and $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines. The deal also called for Massey to resolve the more than 1300 safety violations found at the mine since the 2006 fire. Despite pleas from the two widows to reject the deal, the judge approved the plea, which included a provision sparing Massey and its executives from prosecution.

Worker safety violations aren’t Massey’s only crimes; the company is also a recidivist environmental criminal. To note just a few examples:

  • In January 2008, Massey was fined $20 million, the largest penalty ever for Clean Water Act violations. The government cited more than 4,500 permit violations by company operations in West Virginia and Kentucky between January 2000 and December 2006. The suit against Massey also alleged that Massey dumped toxic waste containing heavy metals and sediment into local waterways.
  • In 2001, more than half the residents of Sylvester, West Virginia sued Massey and its local subsidiary for years of coal dust pollution that blanketed their town. In 2000 the state found the Massey company in violation of environmental laws, but suspended the plant for just three days. After the residents’ lawsuit was filed, the state ordered the company to cover its coal piles with a huge nylon dome, but the company’s flimsy cover tore open even before the lawsuit went to trial. Ultimately the Massey subsidiary was found guilty and ordered to pay $473,000 in damages and hundreds of thousands in fees, in addition to taking steps to address the ongoing pollution. Several individuals filed separate suits for their ongoing health problems they attributed to the pollution.
  • In 2000, a Massey operation in Kentucky spilled 306 million gallons of toxic sludge, 28 times more sludge than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, eventually polluting 100 miles of waterways, devastating aquatic life, and threatening the water supply in ten Kentucky counties. Massey called the spill an “act of God,” but a mining engineer who was a consultant for Massey before the spill testified that at least five Massey managers knew that a spill was inevitable. Ultimately, Massey agreed to pay $3.25 million in fines and damages, but in a lawsuit settled in 2003, the state failed to win punitive damages against the company. In the meantime,  another Massey subsidiary was found to have violated probation for Clean Water Act violations when federal authorities found it responsible for more spills.

Stay current on the fight against mountaintop removal and Massey coal with the Climate Ground Zero campaign.

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