Coal Boss Don Blankenship Cast as Cavalier About Worker Safety in Lawsuits

Shnayerson said that, despite appearances, Blankenship is not a comic book villain, but a complex man who is respected by many in West Virginia for what is viewed as straight talk, and for his almost paternalistic treatment of his workers and colleagues.  

In fact, while many Massey employees have refused to talk to reporters about the mine disaster, some have rallied to Blankenship's defense. Robin Shamblin, whose sister, Bobbie, is a miner at Upper Big Branch, where the explosion occurred, told The New York Times this week: "There is a lot of pride that Massey people feel about their work and working in the mines over all. They are happy to be working and many, not all, but many feel lucky to be working for Massey and Blankenship."  

Shnayerson said that loyalty has been rewarding for some, who have worked long careers with the firm, but not for others. When Blankenship first took control of the mine, he spent more than a year trying to woo the miners to abandon their allegiance to the labor union that had represented them.

"Don made it his own personal campaign. He began flying in every week in his helicopter. He gave pep talks. He took a whole bunch of them on trips to Dollywood, where they went to concerts. He went with them and bonded with them. New cars started turning up in their driveways," Shnayerson said.

But as soon as the union was gone, Shnayerson said Blankenship shifted gears. Work hours increased from eight hours to 12 hours. Bonuses were cut. If they got injured, their jobs were at risk.

And according to federal mining data, citations and safety violations started to rise. Ellen Smith, a mine safety expert who publishes a mining industry news letter, said a number of violations at Upper Big Branch signaled significant risks, including one incident where a ventilation system was malfunctioning and sending coal dust into a primary escape shaft. Two violations were cited on the day of the explosion.

"They had so many citations," Smith said, "It appears this was an explosion or an accident waiting to happen."

In an interview with Diane Sawyer Tuesday, Blankenship said he didn't know of any steps his company could have taken to prevent the disaster and deflected suggestions that his company's coal mines are more dangerous than others.

"Eighteen of the last 20 years we've been safer than the industry average," Blankenship told Sawyer. "We're the leaders in safety innovation and continue to be more creative in the area of safety than any other company, in our opinion."

Blankenship acknowledged a record of problems but said the mine had been deemed safe by federal inspectors.

"We have lots of regulators in the industry, probably more regulators in the coal industry than any other industry in the country, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the state agencies, all the safety people we have on hand felt this was a safe coal mine," Blankenship said. "At the Massey level, we're doing everything we can to make all of our mines as safe as we can."

When asked by Sawyer whether Massey Energy owes anything to the families of the killed miners, Blankenship said that his company will set up a fund for the families and provide assistance for the needs of the miners children. He told her: "Anything in life has risks."

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