Why They Call It King Coal: A killer industry continues to call the shots

(Counterpunch) The mainstream media pushes West Virginia into the national spotlight either every four years, during a presidential election, or when coal miners are trapped, rescued or killed in their line of work. Network TV has a particular order when reporting coal mining disasters: it is about ordinary Americans scraping a living underground, hopeful then grieving families, the technologies used to rescue miners, the uncertainty and drama of time running out, and lastly, how environmental and public health and worker rules have failed to protect the workers. Somewhere and awkwardly, political corruption by King Coal fits in; a little unseemly to reporter and news anchor in times of such personal tragedy.

There is another way to tell the story of course: political corruption first puts coal workers at risk of death, trapped by circumstances: either work underground for King Coal and risk your life, go fight our wars in the US military and risk your life, or work for the government defending King Coal and its prerogatives. For working class West Virginians, that’s the economy in a nutshell, accompanied by plaintive Civil War violins.

Rich West Virginia coal miners popped up in Florida a decade ago, hoping to install a golf course called Mirasol in Everglades wetlands and panther habitat, west of Naples in Collier County. In 2004, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fired an 18-year employee, biologist Andy Eller, one week after he had written a biological opinion against Mirasol. In the Washington Post in 2002, Eller’s comments critical of rubber stamp approval of development in Southwest Florida were placed alongside top Bush campaign fundraiser and founder of WCI Communities, Al Hoffman, who boasted that growth was “an unstoppable force”. In August 2008, WCI filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.

These points seem disconnected from and trivial compared to the loss of dozens of lives in West Virginia. But the whiff of political corruption is nearly as strong as the methane gas seeping through vents near this week’s tragedy. On TV, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship looks like any ordinary guy, but the millions he has spent on politics has rumbled all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006, “One of the state’s few big employers is Massey, which had revenue of $2.2 billion last year and employs about 4,300 West Virginians. Relations between Massey and the state have long been uneasy. The company recently reached a $1.4 million settlement over alleged environmental violations. More than 13 people, including some contract employees, have died while working at Massey-owned mines in the past five years. In 2001, a report commissioned by then-Gov. Bob Wise said the company’s accident record “would be among the highest” if contract workers were included. The report said Massey’s official safety record was improved because some accidents involving contractors weren’t reported under Massey’s name. Mr. Blankenship says the company’s safety record is among the best in what is known as a dangerous industry and calls the number of fatalities “better than average when you consider we have 5,700 people” companywide… Today, just 3 percent of Massey’s employees are unionized.” (Wall Street Journal, “A coal CEO’s pastime: Firing up W. Va. politics”, February 14, 2006)

While West Virginia was solid Democratic territory for decades, in the case of Blankenship and King Coal, it is all Republican.

“Don L. Blankenship is not the governor of West Virginia. But here in coal country some say he may as well be, considering the power he wields. Mr. Blankenship, the chief executive of the state’s largest coal producer, Massey Energy, has promised to spend “whatever it takes” to help win a majority in the State Legislature for the long-beleaguered Republican Party in a state that is a Democratic and labor stronghold. In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Mr. Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years. Mr. Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in his current effort to oust Democrats, and the state is awash with lawn signs, highway billboards, radio advertisements and field organizers paid for by him… Union leaders say Mr. Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state’s coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago. And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal that involves using explosives to blow off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams. Local Republicans admiringly say that Mr. Blankenship combines the strategic savvy of Karl Rove, the White House adviser, and the fund-raising skill of Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative financier. Mr. Blankenship personally oversees his media campaigns; he writes advertisements and designs polls, and speaks on talk radio more than the chairman of the state Republican Party… George W. Bush won West Virginia in 2000, the first time since 1928 that voters backed a nonincumbent Republican for president. Mr. Bush won the state again in 2004, and in the past several years, a large number of Republicans have moved into the state’s eastern panhandle, mostly from Virginia.” (October 22, 2006, NY Times)

Like Big Sugar or Big Tobacco, King Coal gets its way. In the 2006 Wall Street Journal article, a board member had the last word, “The chief executive often briefs Massey’s board on his political activities and has won its understanding… What’s best for the state of West Virginia are (Blankenship’s) positions, usually, and that will maximize shareholder value.” Cue, the Civil War violins.

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