By now the name Don Blankenship is practically a household word all across the U.S. following the death of 29 miners at a Massey Energy coal mine, but Blankenship — the company’s CEO — has been well known in West Virgina and throughout Appalachia for some time now. Perhaps equally well known is an apparent pal of his, former state Supreme Court judge Elliot Maynard. While on the bench, Maynard hooked up with Blankenship on an overseas vacation and voted to reverse a $50 million jury award against Massey. When the relationship came to light in 2008, it helped spike Maynard’s re-election.
Now Maynard is now vying to be the Republican nominee for Congress in a West Virginia district deep in coal country. Is he still thisclose to Blankenship? Zachary Roth over at Talking Points Memo has the story with a link to Maynard’s Facebook campaign page, which sports a March 26 press release. In it Maynard announces that he’s invited a celebrity to visit a coal mine in West Virginia. The money quote: “We would love to have Sarah showcase modern mining as a clean, safe and cheap way to produce energy.”
Maynard’s what-me-worry cheerleading echoes Blankenship’s attitude toward mine safety, which has become the stuff legends are made of. In that regard it’s of note that while unionized coal mines seem to have a pretty good track record when it comes to safety, unions have been shrinking and there are plenty of non-union mines. Upper Big Branch – South, the site of the disaster, was a non-union coal mine.
Profits and the Global Coal Market
A couple of weeks before Maynard’s press release went out, Blankenship authored an op-ed in which he touted “coal’s positive impact on the U.S. economy.” He could have been a little more expansive in terms of geography, because according to an Associated Press story from 2007 it appears that in recent years Massey Energy has been more focused on the global economy. At the time, coal prices were high and Massey told a group of investors that the company’s 5-year plan called for ramping up coal production in Central Appalachia to beat rival Australia in coal exports, stating “We’re in a great position to benefit from this market.” The article also suggests that Massey meant to accomplish this by aggressively exploiting its existing holdings rather than acquiring new mines. Shorter version: the company aimed to quickly increase production in its mine t0 “cash in,” as AP reporter Tim Huber put it.
Surface Mining and Coal Exports
Blankenship’s op-ed also stated that surface mining is “the safest way to mine coal” although that’s not entirely clear if you include factors such as unionization and whether the mining company is paying attention to safety rules. More to the point, the surface mining that Blankenship refers to includes mountaintop removal, in which hundreds of mountains throughout Appalachia have been exploded into bits, with the rubble pushed into valleys burying thousands of miles of mountain streams. Whether surface or underground mining, the coal economy has taken its toll on Appalachia. In contrast to the rosy pictures painted by Maynard and Blankenship, the region suffers from long term chronic poverty and in 2005 the Appalachian Regional Commission reported that coal mining is the strongest indicator of poverty within Appalachia. It’s bad enough that current coal mining practices are savaging America’s natural heritage and stunting economic growth in an entire region to run domestic power plants. To add insult to injury, the fruits of this destruction have been shipped overseas help other countries compete more effectively with – yep, us.
Image: ACCCE “Clean Coal Carolers” campaign via A Siegel on flickr.com.