Audio of Don Blankenship: “Black Lung Is Not an Issue in This Industry that Is Worth the Effort”

Image of Don Blankenship

Among the many exhibits that are being made public in the trail of former Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship, is audio of a call in which Blankenship minimizes the risk of black lung while acknowledging that his employees engaged in dust fraud.

The call is discussing an MSHA “blitz” inspection of a Massey mine focusing on dust conditions.  Don Blankenship talks about six inspectors coming from Alabama and Arlington, Virginia and says “the district didn’t even know they were here.”

The other person on the call says “Wow . . . . They really are proceeding on the belief that curtains and fans are running while the inspectors are there and they’ve got them all off and down when they’re not.

Blankenship responds, “Yeah, I’m sure that there’s a certain amount of things that section bosses do and so forth, but the truth of the matter is that black lung is not an issue in this industry that is worth the effort that they put into it.

The conversation is appalling on multiple levels.

First, there is the insensitivity to the real dangers of black lung, a disease that was found in 71% of the miners who were killed at Upper Big Branch whose lungs could be autopsied.

Second, Blankenship ignores the fact that coal-mine dust is not only a risk for black lung, but also contributes to the danger of mine explosions.  As the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s report found, Upper Big Branch had insufficient dust controls and “[t]he fact that the explosion killed men working so far away from the initial impact, offers strong evidence that coal dust played a significant role in propagating the blast throughout the mine.

Third, Blankenship’s comment about the district office being unaware of the blitz inspection and the other speaker’s use of the word “wow” suggests that Massey had a cozy relationship with the local office of the regulators at MSHA.

The audio was made public in the case of United States v. Blankenship, No. 5:14-cr-00244 (S.D. W. Va.) as Exhibit 126 and posted on the website of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of West Virginia.

This recording and Blankeship’s comments were covered in a Bloomberg article yesterday by George Hohmann and Jef Feeley.

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