The former boss of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, who was known for his iron-fisted control of its operations, said he was not aware that company lawyers routinely fought claims filed by ailing coal miners who believed they had contracted black lung disease.
“All that has come out since I was gone,” said Donald Blankenship, the controversial former chief executive of the Massey Energy coal company said during an hour-long interview with ABC News. “I was not aware of it … I didn’t run the worker’s comp department.”
Blankenship said he first learned that large numbers of coal miners suffering from black lung were being forced to endure lengthy court battles to secure their federally-mandated support from reports by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity. But he said he believes the system is working as well as it can.
“There’s a lot of people getting black lung benefits,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know the exact number. But the industry probably pays $300 million a year into black lung funds. And, of course, they’ve worked very hard to reduce the incidence of black lung.”
Blankenship conceded there probably are coal miners dying from black lung disease who have been denied their federally-mandated financial support, as there are likely some who have received benefits who did not have the disease.
“I wish that everything in life were fair and people that truly deserved the benefit or warranted the benefit got it, and the one’s that didn’t, didn’t,” said Blankenship. “But, you know, life is life.”
Blankenship, who earned millions at the helm of a West Virginia coal empire, and now lives in retirement and spends time in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, said he was unaware that the law firm representing his former coal company and others had been routinely challenging miners’ black lung claims in court.
An ABC News investigation last fall, conducted with the Center for Public Integrity, described how lawyers and doctors hired by the coal industry have played a crucial role in beating back claims for benefits from miners sick and dying of black lung. Fewer than 10 percent of coal miners who apply for the benefits, which range from just over $600 a month to about $1,250 a month, ultimately have received them, Labor Department numbers show.
Coal industry officials declined to comment on the report at the time it aired. Blankenship told ABC News he was unaware of the legal tactics being used to thwart black lung claims during his decades running Massey Energy. He said those decisions would have been made by employees in the company’s worker’s comp department, and he would not have been briefed on them.
“It seems fair to me that companies– in order to represent their shareholders – would want to make sure that people making black lung claims actually have black lung,” Blankenship said.
At the time ABC News aired the report, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) said he resented the notion propagated by some in the industry that miners would be trying to cheat the system – to collect black lung benefits when they were not really sick with the deadly disease.
“The cheating is going on with the coal operators,” Rockefeller said. “Why should they change? This thing has worked for them for a century?”
“And the irony is that black lung now is shown to be getting worse among young miners,” the senator added. “This is a new trend, but it's-- it's active right now. It's shown to be getting worse. And, you know, there's just-- there's just nothing but sadness and-- and cruelty and callowness associated with this whole thing on the part of operators. Not the miners.”
After the mine disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 coal workers, autopsies performed on the victims found that 17 of them had evidence of black lung disease.
Blankenship said he believes the prevalence of the disease was likely the result of a decision by government regulators to prevent mine operators from using scrubbers – an air filtration system intended to rid the underground air of coal dust.