Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 8, 2011 8:33AM

The Heartbreaking Upper Big Branch Mine Settlement

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Clay Mullins 

Clay Mullins in West Virginia:

“It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men...”


 Two hundred ten million dollars. It sounds like a lot of money.  It’s blood money of course, and on one level it represents business as usual in coal country:  mine disasters occur because no one is looking out for the little guy, and then some corporate entity pays. 

Then there’s Gary Quarles, father of dead miner Gary Wayne Quarles, "I'm the same right now as I was when I found out that he was dead, and I can't see it changing, no matter how much money — if there's any — that comes our way or how many people go to jail. That's not gonna help me."

It’s an unending cycle of heartbreak and epic failure of the regulatory mechanisms we are supposed to expect in a democracy.  But democracy is diminished in coal country, isn’t it?  Coal. Increasingly clean coal.  That’s the sponsorship tagline I have regularly heard on NPR of all places. The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was more than a disaster.  It was an ongoing criminal enterprise.  U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who announced the settlement said “our investigation has revealed criminal conduct.”  But he didn’t say if charges would follow and he didn’t say who might be charged, especially whether it might include the name on everyone’s lips in West Virginia: former Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship, the “criminal mastermind” behind the mine’s failure.

Some close to the industry did not mince words.  Former Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) official Tony Oppegard said:

You have an enforcement agency that had to know this was an outlaw operation and they did not use the stringent enforcement tools they had which possibly could have prevented the disaster.

The measure of these words is astounding.  People close to the regulatory mechanisms don’t talk like that.  They talk like this:

We did shut the mine down 48 times in the year leading up to the explosion. What we don't have is the ability to say because you received so many orders we're going to shut you down permanently.

That’s current MSHA coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin.  He conveniently omits the fact that MSHA could have hauled Massey Energy into federal court but chose not to.  Why?  An insidious ethos that has permeated state and federal environmental regulatory agencies for the better part of a decade:  the initiative to work with industry, to coax, to cajole, to be a friend to industry—and not to upset the apple cart.  It’s all part of regulatory capture.  In this case, it caused the unnecessary deaths of 29 miners.  It was Russian roulette, but the gun was in Massey management’s hands, pointed at the miner’s heads.  Ah, to squeeze just a little more profit out of the operation. 


Image: Les Stone / 

            Where, I wonder, are those who say corporations are people too, at a moment like this?  Where are those that say industry will regulate itself at a moment like this?  You see, some amazing things are happening here.  For one, corporate person Massey Energy is no more.  Have a little run-in with disaster and poof; get bought out by a new corporate entity, Alpha National Resources. Alpha National Resources is officially blameless.  And Massey can’t die, can’t be sent the penitentiary.

            It’s officers can, however, be charged, based on probable evidence of criminal negligence at the very least.  And people are watching. Former UMWA President Richard Trumka said, as reported by Charleston Gazette’s longtime coal country reporter Ken Ward, Jr., “We await jail time for the culpable. The only way to make a real down payment on justice is to ensure the guilty serve appropriately stiff jail sentences.”

            Blankenship, meanwhile, if you can believe this, having left Massey around the time of its sale is now said to be launching a new coal company named after the family name of his mother: McCoy Coal Group Inc.

Lessons from Another Disaster

I recently heard Bethany McLean, co-author of All the Devils Are Here, a book on the origins and causes of the economic meltdown, speaking at the Commonwealth Club.  She pointed out that those who blamed lack of regulation for the meltdown were only partly right.  No-doc home buyers, home-as-ATM-borrowers, Wall Street types, securities bundlers, Congress and the regulatory apparatus were all to blame.  It’s not enough to just have laws on the books, she said.  Well, duh.  What it takes is the will, the capacity and the commitment to enforce the laws on the books.  That would go a long way in every case, I believe.  But that’s not the way of regulatory capture.

            In the case of Massey Energy, Blankenship actually bought a member of the West Virginia Supreme Court.  He had ready access to the Governor’s mansion—that would be then-Governor now-Democratic (in name at least) Senator Joe Manchin.  Manchin was a huge advocate for the prerogatives of coal.  West Virginia was rigged in Big Coal’s favor top to bottom to a degree that the most egregious mining conditions in this country in this century went unchecked.  Go back and follow Ken Ward Jr.’s coverage in the Coal Tattoo/Charleston Gazette blog and you’ll see that.  All the locals will tell you the miners worked in great fear of losing their jobs for speaking out.  Ask Gary Quarles.

            Ward himself wishes he had dug deeper, writing yesterday:

And maybe the rest of us in the media have missed an important story by not writing more about Massey’s union-busting efforts, their possible impacts on miner safety (an issue Mike Elk tackled for In These Times), and whether Alpha’s attitudes toward unions are similar to Massey’s.

Defacto deregulation always works until it doesn’t.  And the tragedy of our bought-and-paid for system of government is that it’s clear for all to see—all our train wrecks are slow-mo.  Everyone knew West Virginia was on the take from Big Coal, led by Massey.  I have sat in kitchens in Charleston and had lawyers tell me, “You just don’t understand,” no matter what tactic I offered as a slim strategy for change.

            Yesterday, according to AP, Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex is among the dead said, “It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men, and I'm not satisfied one bit.”

            What is crystal clear from the Upper Big Branch debacle is that laws on the books don’t matter without the real ability to enforce them.  When legislators and governors are in cahoots with what amounts to criminal enterprises we have recourse only to the courts or the streets.  Both options only get you a little bit of what you what, which, I believe, is justice.

   Meanwhile, those closest to harm’s way, the miners and their families, don’t dare open their mouths. It’s a free country, I guess.  The miners are free to leave their ancestral homes, their way of life and seek work in Cincinnati, Louisville, Charleston or wherever.  But what we have lost…  And the astonishingly cheap cost of real lives in the balance—lives too cheap at two hundred ten million a pop. This is life in our great national sacrifice zone, where they produce increasingly clean coal.  No, that’s not dirt on the industry’s hands.  It’s blood.


Image: Les Stone /

* * *

Grateful acknowledgment to Open Salon's Les Stone, who offered these images from his collection from the Upper Big Branch Mine memorial.  See more at his site.  Click on his avatar in my favorites section above or go to:

Also at:

 UPDATE 12/9:  NPR's Morning Edition is airing breaking news on Massey Energy and MSHA negligence as aspects of the cause of the blast.  The report is not up on their web site yet but you can find more background here:


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I hope that someday your keyboard will have the power to trap those culpable in their own hell.
There in absolutely nothing clean about coal or this money.
It's blood money.
And with the death of 29 men who were murdered by the evil that is so-called clean coal. Massey Coal committed their murder.
Coal miners are, and always have been, the unsung heroes in our nation's history.
"Where, I wonder, are those who say corporations are people too, at a moment like this? Where are those that say industry will regulate itself at a moment like this?"

Well, they're in Congress, and the Supreme Court, and working on Obama's economic advisory team, and in state and federal regulatory agencies, and in every state capital, and... Most of us seem just fine with that, just as we seem fine with a government that's run by and for the corporate sector; if we weren't fine with it, we'd change it.
It will be perversely, and probably tragically, interesting to see just how much -- if any -- of that $250 million reaches the families of the miners. Not that money can ever compensate for such a loss.

I've said it before -- until the externalities are factored into the btu cost of energy, alternatives will continue to be deemed impractical, and thus we will continue to be brutalized by the lie of "clean" coal and "safe" nuclear energy. What are the externalities?

Most obviously and tragically is the immediate loss of life -- it is estimated that more than 100,000 miners died in mining accidents during the 20th Century. God only knows how many more died a slow, painful and premature death from black lung and other mining related diseases.

And God only knows how many millions more will suffer because of the ravaging and savaging of the environment by those who claim there is such a thing as "clean" coal. These are the same people who knowingly lie and claim their industries don't contribute to global warming

It's also a fact that death and injuries are far more prevalent in non-union mines. Hmmm? Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why? Here's one answer, and it isn't a guess -- corporate criminals like Don Blankenship, and co-conspirators like Joe Manchin.

I try to tell young people that kin of mine died fighting for workers' rights in coal country, and that as a consequence young people in many other places enjoy better pay, overtime, pensions and safer working conditions. But alas, my words fall on deaf ears. They will learn only when they become personally acquainted with the old cliche: You don't know what you got until you lose it.
Steve, thank you for this, you really hit all the nails on the heads here.

Great article, pathetic topic. Where indeed are the wingnuts when they have a chance to address the reality they've created? Someone above answered that, basically in Washington, D.C. I'd put them all in a coal mine in a heartbeat--or better still, a South African diamond mine.

We MUST pull the carpet from under the corporations, any way we can. Or give them the red carpet, directly to jail, since they claim to be people.

I'm linking this to, btw.
Great post. Thanks for bringing attention to something that has never received enough attention in this country. The history of coal mines is bloody and unfair and sometimes unbelievable. I grew up in Appalachia with a grandfather who was a paraplegic because of a mining accident. He was quoted in the local newspaper after the accident, saying he just hoped his son would never have to go into the mines. As soon as my father grew up, however, he did, because choices were limited. My father was unhappy for most of his life, an alcoholic who died young, and he once told my mother that to understand what being in the mines was like, she would have to crouch down under the kitchen table and stay there for hours in the dark. At times, he was a foreman and made decent money but had to stand guard, armed, looking for scabs when there was a strike (he accidentally shot himself in the leg during a strike). Other times, he made very little money or couldn't find work. In my hometown, there are several people who sincerely worry about regulations, about clean energy options that will wipe the coal mines out of business and leave their husbands or relatives without a job. After a history that includes the battle of Blair Mountain, coal companies' practices of paying miners with scrip instead of real money, and the unsafe conditions that persist today, I can't help wondering when coal miners will be entitled to anything resembling justice.
do you suppose, if americans had citizen initiative, this kind of thing would be going on, year after year after year?

why do you refer to america as a 'democracy?' it is nothing of the sort, and by using the term you obscure the cure for the crimes you would like to stop..
Enforcing the laws on the books seems so easy. But you cited the answer in regulatory capture. I think it all stems from political financing. So long as winning campaigns are tied to whose is better funded, and the funders have a vested interest in ineffective regulation, this is what you get.

How long has "clean coal" been around. Quite a bit longer than "ethical oil". Both brough to you by the Ministry of Truth?
Thanks for this Steve. The plight of the coal miner and their victimhood seems to be finally getting some coverage here and other places. Never enough though and not soon enough. Great last paragraph.

I'm originally from Nova Scotia and grew up with the tales of the Springhill Mine Disaster.
Lisa, thank you for your most eloquent comment. I can only encourage you to expand on your story and share it with the world, because I believe that only the most direct narratives have a chance of countering the disinformation we hear daily from the renegade companies in the energy industry.

And thanks to all for your comments.
Steve, I add my thanks, compliments and rating/share to the rest. This is a tragic story, one which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's worked for enough corporations and seen how willing they can be to compromise human life and safety for the almighty buck. "Clean coal" may be one more venue, but I've seen it everywhere from construction sites (as an IOUE member) to internal operations at companies with vast wealth. I don't think I've ever seen the consequences match the crime and usually, they are no more than another cost of "doing business".
Like money is going to make anything right...
Corporations kill, plain and simple. Our (the common people) lives are cheap. If only we could all truly LOVE our fellow man and not use each and every person up like a sponge until they die. Rated.