What Does it Mean for Mine Safety, Now That Blankenship is Guilty?

Dec 4, 2015

There’s been landmark news here in the coalfields.

After 10 days of deliberation, jurors have found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.

It’s a misdemeanor charge that could mean up to one year in prison for the former executive. Blankenship was found not-guilty on two felony counts of making false statements.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear various reactions from across Appalachia on the historic verdict on the Blankenship trial.

But some are wondering whether this trial will change the way coal executives treat their employees, and whether it will prevent more mine fatalities.

The charges against Blankenship stemmed from an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. The blast killed 29 men who were working underground. Families of the victims are still grieving.

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Shirley Whitt, whose brother, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch, says she doesn’t think she’ll feel like it’s over until after Blankenship’s sentencing in March. "I’m glad he was guilty everyone knows he was guilty of conspiracy. But when they said not guilty on the other two it was like someone just hit you in the stomach."

Mindi Stewart memorialized the 29 men who died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion with a tattoo. Her husband, Stanly "Goose" Stewart, was one of two survivors of the blast. It's just one of many ways that folks in the coalfields try to honor, memorialize and cope.
Credit Courtesy

Scott Halstead is a former miner at Upper Big Branch. He testified during the trial:

"I’m doing it for the 29 that perished you know they were my close friends. When you lose one you lose a part of your self. I just wanted to do what was right, and it’s all I could do to help the families of the ones that lost their loved ones.”

Halstead says the past few years have been hard for him and speaking out wasn’t something he felt safe to do before. He hopes his testimony sends a message to other coal miners too.

In this episode:

  • We hear what it might mean for other mine safety operators, now that the Blankenship verdict has been announced.
  • We talk in depth with Tony Oppegard,  an attorney from Kentucky who has represented miners and their families for about 30 years. He also served as Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Federal Mine Safety & Health Administration.
  • We listen to the final episode of the podcast Blankenship on Trial. On the eve of the verdict, West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra talked with the podcast’s host, Scott Finn, about the verdict, its implications and what comes next.
  • Joining the conversation will also be Charleston attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Hissam

Sharon Clelland sings "Amazing Grace". In the middle is UMWA President Cecil Roberts and to the left is Delegate Mike Caputo, also UMWA District 31 International Vice President
Credit Jesse Wright / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

47th Anniversary of the 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster

We’ll also hear from family members who are still wrestling with the effects of another major mining accident, the Farmington Disaster of 1968.

“It was the explosion heard round the world. And we’ll never forget it. And we’ll never forget my dad, David Manilla,” said Aida Manilla Everheart.

One year after the Farmington disaster, congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, generally referred to as the Coal Act, which helped protect miners.

Sharon Clelland was 5 years old when the Farmington explosion took place.

“If it wasn’t for this disaster, the mine and safety act of today probably would not even exist. I have a son that’s in the coal mines today.  I have a niece that’s in the coal mines. Technology of today is 100 percent better than it was in 1968, but you never stop worrying. Never.”

For the past eight years, Clelland has sung "Amazing Grace" for the memorial ceremony. It was her dad, David Cartwright, who taught her how to sing, just before he died.

Former Federal Mine Inspector Larry Layne Discusses Cause of the No. 9 Explosion:

Last November, a new civil lawsuit was filed on behalf of the families of the 78 victims of the 1968 Farmington mine disaster against Consolidation Coal Company. This was after a memo was discovered a few years ago, revealing information that shows mine management may have told their employees to disable a fan ventilation system alarm.

The memo was written by a Federal mine inspector Larry Layne.

Writer Bonnie Stewart actually discovered the memo while she was researching a book about the Farmington mine disaster. That book is called No. 9.

Considering how much this memo has changed what we know about the Farmington disaster, reporter Michael Kline decided he wanted to hear more. So earlier this year, he went to talk with Larry Layne at his home in Alabama.

A transcript of this interview was first published in a book called Truth Be Told.

Inside Appalachia host Jessica Lilly also closes this episode with these personal remarks:

“Losing a loved one in a sudden, violent action is something you never get over. I don’t believe it was my father’s time to die in 2001. He should have been here to attend my graduation, walk me down the aisle and meet his grandkids. It’s a club you just don’t want to be in. After meeting some of the families of the Upper Big Branch explosion, it was clear we shared this membership - and at times, I was more of a member than a reporter. And I hope that connection made things a little easier for the families as I know they’ve given me strength through the coverage. I know I had lots of questions after my dad died and I thought, maybe, I could help find answers for other families.  

There doesn't seem to be a way to make mining a job with no risks. There will always be mistakes and likely there'll always be mine owners and inspectors who cut corners and take chances. But it shouldn’t stop us from demanding justice and standing up for what’s right. And even after disasters like the one at Upper Big Branch, there are still a lot of people who would be glad to go back to the mines, if only the jobs were there - to risk their lives to put supper on the table. For the remaining jobs, I hope the miners will never be forced to work in conditions they know are unsafe … in silence.”- Jessica Lilly, reporter and host for Inside Appalachia.

We’d love to hear from you.   You can e-mail us at feedback@wvpublic.org. Find us on Twitter @InAppalachia or @JessicaYLilly.

Subscribe to our Inside Appalachia podcast here or on iTunes here, or on Soundcloud here or on Stitcher here.

Music in this episode show was provided by Jake Schepps, Kathryn Claire, who performed "Miner’s Lullaby", written by James Low, Stacy Grubb performing "Montcoal, West Virginia" written by Alan "Cathead" Johnston Ben Townsend with “Hey Hey Hey”, and the late Hazel Dickens with “Mannington Mine”.