Don Blankenship defends safety record - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

Don Blankenship defends safety record


BECKLEY, W.Va. (WVVA) There are two sides to every story, but generally only one truth. Those were former Massey CEO Don Blankenship's words as he agree to a sit down interview at his West Virginia home. 

Blankenship was the first high-ranking corporate executive to do prison time for a work place safety crime. 

At his trial, prosecutors accused the former Massey CEO of putting profits over people and covering up safety violations that led to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that took the lives of 29 men. After nine days of deliberations, the jury came back with a guilty verdict on only one of the three counts, conspiring to violate safety standards, a misdemeanor. 

While Blankenship was never directly linked to the explosion in the court system, three separate federal, state, and independent investigations claimed Massey's negligence played a role in the disaster.  

In an exclusive interview, he told WVVA News why he thinks those investigations were politically motivated.

Question: You've been in prison for the last year, what was that like?

Blankenship: It was different. That's the first thing I would say. I was surprised at the quality of the people and the reasons they were there. A lot of them were doctors and bankers and coyotes, people who help others get across the border. 

Question: Did you have a job there? 

Blankenship: Everybody in there has a job. My job was cleaning the lobby of the prison area. It wasn't a hard job, but it was a job. 

Question: When you got out of prison, you put out a series of tweets saying the investigation was stacked against you. In what way was it stacked against you? 

Blankenship: Stacked against me is an understatement. It was mostly a fraud if you want to use Trump's word...a fake prosecution. The explosion was clearly a natural gas explosion, not a dust explosion. It followed changes that were required or mandated by the government.

Question: What makes you say natural gas? 

Blankenship: In the samples and analysis that MSHA took in the five hours after the explosion, it showed that it was clearly natural gas. In the world of chemistry, they can't tell the difference between natural gas and coal gas by whether it has ethane and propane in it. And the gas that came out at UBB after the explosion contained ethane and propane.  In fact, it was almost identical to the gas wells in that area that are about 25 hundred feet deep. Anyone who saw that analysis and knows chemistry knows it was a natural gas explosion. 

Question: Take me back to the days and weeks leading up to the explosion, the mine had a considerable amount of safety violations, but it was also one of the biggest mines in the area. What can you tell me about the conditions in that mine leading up to the explosion. 

Blankenship: The government had just released it from a quarterly inspection that showed it to be in good condition. They had written a memo from the head of the district of MSHA that the improvement in the mine was very good and they were very happy with the way it was. There were a lot of violations, many of the serious violations were because MSHA was requiring them to change the airflow in a way they had never operated before. They had basically been using belt air and had a hundred thousand cubic feet of air on the long wall. And the week before the explosion, on Easter, the day before the explosion, they had finished changes that cut the airflow in half. So the mine had been experiencing a mandated change in ventilation that was causing a lot of violations. But the rock dusting was pretty well completely fixed from what they had written notices or violations about. The bigger thing about the UBB story is they had 830 some violations over 830-something days of the indictment period, which was the average for all long walls in the United States and better than the average in the state of West Virginia. So the violation numbers were accurate numbers but it wasn't put in perspective. 

Question: Why would an MSHA inspector make that recommendation to cut the airflow? 

Blankenship: There had been debate in the industry and in the government about whether air should be allowed to come up the belt line of a coal mine because if the belt line had a fire on one of the motors or something it could take smoke to the face. And they decided you shouldn't bring belt air up the belt line. The problem with that was that mines that were designed and in operation were set up to use belt air and they didn't have any alternative way to get air to the wall. So essentially all they could do was cut the air in half. It was still twice the legally required amount an air. But nonetheless it was cut in half by a requirement that did not have to be imposed except on new mines, but that MSHA decided to impose on this particular mine. And it was the first and only mine in West Virginia to my knowledge that was being denied belt air. 

"I had been out of town the weekend before, which I said before was Easter weekend. I knew that the Massey engineers and the government engineers were arguing about it and that our engineers were determined it shouldn' be. And in fact, the prosecution's lead witness at my trial testified under oath that he begged the government not to change it. He had worked 35 years in ventilation at MSHA. and he told them it was a dangerous thing to do. But they said either do it or shut it down. Their engineers at the mine determined it was safe but it turned out it wasn't once there once a natural gas inundation. 

Question: How hard was it telling the family members that their loved ones were dead? 

Blankenship:  It was very difficult. Of course, the first six or so came out early in the process. and some of them were in there for several days trying to find them. Most of the politicians ran down to talk to the media, but the rest of us stuck with the family for the next couple hours. It was unpleasant, but it was necessary. 

Question: Your critics would say you put profits over people...what do you say to that?

Blankenship: I think anybody that knows me knows not only that it's not true and how outrageously untrue it is. We were the leader, and I personally, was  most probably the most prolific inventer of mine safety devices in the last 50 or 60 years. I know we listed two dozen things that I personally caused to be placed in the industry, including what is now being mandated across all the mining industry which is called a proximity device, which detects the presence of a miner near it and if a machine presents a risk, it kicks off and quits running. I also came up with the reflective clothing that people in our community see on people in the grocery store, and so forth, and different styles of boots and hard hats.

Question: Is there anything you want the families to hear, if they are listing to this? 

Blankenship: I think the biggest thing for them to understand is that not only has the company and Don and the managers been slandered, but so have their loved ones. The 29 miners that perished had more than 500 years of mining experience. And they did not do what they're accused of doing.They maintained the mine extremely well. They're the victims of two things: One was a natural gas coming in in a surprising volume and the fact that the government had reduced the air in half. They were not at all at fault. I think that's the main thing for the children, grandchildren, and loved ones of the victims to know. They were the best Massey had. The reason they were at a mine so expensive and so big is because they were the A team and they should know that.

Question: What is your response to people like U.S. Senator Joe Manchin who say you have blood on your hands? 

Blankenship: We interviewed him in a documentary that I aired that's on my website where he said he never heard of natural gas being a part of the explosion. He did not even seem to understand the difference between natural gas and coal gas. Yet shortly after that, he went on national TV saying I have blood on my hands. I can understand family members being emotional. I see Mr. Davis and others who are emotional about the loss of their son. But a person who is at the Senate level who admits he does not know natural gas is involved tells me he didn't read the reports at all and then he goes immediately on TV saying I have blood on my hands. Even after they failed to convict me of a felony, and only a misdemeanor and I get out of prison...he says my actions resulted in the death of 29 miners. It's insane to act in that manner when you have the podium that a Senator has. 

Do you think you'll get involved in politics again with contributions?

Blankenship: I have an advantage there in that people don't want my money because they think it hurts their campaign. I haven't been asked for a lot of political contributions. But I have noticed that most of the people who run negative campaigns using me or the likeness of me get beat.

What's next for Don Blankenship?

Blankenship: I have a very diversified life. I'm putting in some franchise restaurants and looking at property in Vegas. I'm intending to enjoy some retirement once I can travel off of probation. I'll probably travel the world a lot. And do basically what comes to my mind when it comes to travel or work when I get up in the morning.

To see Blankenship's full interview, visit: 

*** Blankenship has appealed his misdemeanor conviction on conspiring to violate safety standards to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is expected by the high court by the end of July. 

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