Taking the Initiative

By Carl Pope, Sierra Club Chairman April 17th

Climate Denial, or just Evil?

San Francisco — In a statement last week about the tragic explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 miners, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd wrote, “I am sick. I am saddened and I am angry.”
Senator Byrd’s sadness is something our entire nation shared as the tragedy unfolded. Who could not be moved by the terrible loss the families of those miners have suffered? The reasons for Senator Byrd’s anger, though, might not be as obvious to all Americans.

Those who remember his denunciation of the Iraq War know that Senator Byrd’s anger is, well, it’s a thing of wonder. This time, it’s directed at the reaction of Massey Energy’s chief executive, Don Blankenship, who said, “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America, and (the Upper Big Branch Mine) was a mine that had violations.”

Byrd’s response: “Well for this Senator, the more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone, the angrier I get. 57 citations in the month of March alone! Closed over 60 times during the past two years to correct problems!”

It’s pretty clear that Blankenship doesn’t take human life very seriously. He has run his company for years with a willingness to risk the lives of his employees. A 2005 memo regarding Blankenship’s attitude towards human life, as reported in the L.A. Times, revealed that “all of the company’s deep mine superintendents — including at Upper Big Branch — were put on notice by Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship that coal production trumped any other concerns.”

A year later Blankenship saw the fruits of his attitude: Two miners died in an avoidable accident at Massey’s Aracoma Mine. Massey had to pay the largest fine in coal-mining history. Don Blankenship didn’t blink. He called the deaths “statistically insignificant.” Meanwhile, his company continued to rack up hundreds of safety violations in mine after mine.
When ABC News ran a story on Blankenship’s blatant efforts to buy influence with the West Virginia Supreme Court, Blankenship threatened the reporters, saying, “If you’re going to start taking pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot.”

Apparently, Blankenship is one of those guys who love to take risks — with his own life and with  the lives of others. He thinks it’s macho. People who know him say that when driving he likes to race around a corner as fast as he thinks he can get away with it. When it comes to the environment, his recklessness resulted in  a record fine from the EPA of $20 million for 4,500 Clean Water Act violations between 2000 and 2006. That apparently didn’t faze Blankenship, because this January the Sierra Club filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Massey  Energy for additional violations between April  2008 and March  2009 —  for allegedly violating its effluent limits at least 971 times.

When it comes to the future of our planet’s climate, it’s pretty clear that Blankenship is just as reckless. He calls global warming “a hoax” and “a Ponzi scheme.” He’s a major funder of the Tea Party movement and of the Republican Party in West Virginia.

But do Blankenship’s recklessness and indifference to the fate of others make him an outlier in his industry? Sadly, the answer’s no. The coal and oil industries are filled with people who devote their talent and skills to telling lies and covering up truths, even when they know that the results of their actions will be the death of others.

Let’s take coal’s glitzy public relations drive, The Faces of Coal. In one posting they show the faces of eight people who supposedly represent  the supporters of the Federation of American Coal, Energy and Security. But Rachel Maddow’s blog on NBC did a little digging last weekend discovered that most of the people shown are not, in fact, who they’re labeled as being — and that many of these pictures actually originated with the American Petroleum Institute.

And what did the Faces of Coal website have to say about the Upper Big Branch tragedy? It did make the minimum necessary expression of sympathy for the victims. But there was none of Byrd’s anger or anguish — no demand that never again should real coal miners be put at risk. No, after only five lines, this coal front group  was back on the attack against — not reckless mining practices — but the Environmental Protection Agency, for “heedlessly” seeking to stop water pollution caused by mountaintop-removal mining.

Let’s concede, for the moment, that Don Blankenship might actually be sincere in his beliefs and motivated by something other than greed. But what about the public relations staff and lobbyists who work for the coal industry? Or the folks over at the American Petroleum Institute who provided the phony images of “coal” supporters? All of those people know they’re lying, and that people are dying as a result. And they’re doing it for a paycheck.

Isn’t this a pretty good definition of evil?

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One Response to Taking the Initiative

  1. Mari-Lynn says:

    Thank you, Carl, for that thoughful letter. The sentiments you express are echoed throughout the coal fields and in homes across America.

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