Ten years ago, on April 5, 2010, 29 men who worked at an underground coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, lost their lives. The Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group, Inc. has placed wreaths at the monument in Raleigh County on April 5 every year since. But this year, they aren’t encouraging family members to visit, due to the spread of COVID-19.
Family members are memorializing their loved ones in their own ways. While the annual events at Marsh Fork Elementary, the Upper Big Branch Monument and other places across the region can’t happen as they usually do because of the spread of COVID-19, loved ones still have social media as a way to remember. Some of them keep photos up throughout the year as their cover photo on Facebook, and some remember them with old photos on their birthdays or sharing memories.
In this episode of “Inside Appalachia,” we remember the men who died and explore some of the ways family members, artists and communities memorialize one of the most tragic mining disasters in modern history. We’ll also hear from artists who wrote a play, featuring the music of Steve Earle. The play was inspired by stories from the family members.
A week after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, NPR’s Howard Berkes uncovered that Massey Energy had a high rate of injury — more than twice the national rate.
A year later, Berkes’ further investigations showed that Massey’s unsafe working conditions were likely largely to blame.
Massey Energy was bought by Alpha Natural Resources in 2015. Alpha filed for bankruptcy in 2015, the same year that federal prosecutors brought a case against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
A jury found Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, a misdemeanor charge. He served a year of jail time for that charge.
Blankenship was found not guilty on two counts of securities fraud, felonies that carried much heavier sentences.
Blankenship received the maximum sentence for his misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. His sentence was one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Blankenship served his sentence in prison and was released in May 2017. In 2018, he ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican, but lost in the primary race. He was running for the seat currently held by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
In January of this year he asked for his case to be overturned, but judges dismissed his motion.
Many of the victims’ family members chose to be there, day in and day out, when Blankenship stood trial. Many were there when the verdict was read on December 3, 2015.
Judy Jones Peterson lost her brother in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. After the verdict was announced, Peterson stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in Charleston and addressed a crowd of reporters.
I want to thank the jury for making this decision. To Mr. Blankenship I say you now wear a cloak of criminal shame. Though you’re not convicted on all counts, you are convicted here. You are judged here as a liar, a cheat and a fraud. History, however, will judge you for your true crime — reckless disregard of human life in the name of greed. Judy Jones Peterson
Peterson said she also hoped this historic verdict would make companies increase safety precautions for all workers.
“And most of all we say ‘never again.’ This case sends a message to all CEOs. You are on notice. You are responsible for the health and safety of your members,” Peterson continued.
But she did not lay blame entirely on Blankenship. She also blamed former top mining officials at Massey, and the federal organization charged with protecting the health and safety of miners.
“To MSHA, the Mine Health and Safety Administration, you failed miserably to do the job entrusted to you to ensure the health and safety of our loved ones. You let a rogue organization operate way outside the scope of the law. UBB had more unwarrantable coal failures and you allowed them to conduct business as usual. Don Blankenship and his henchman, you had the ability to prevent this failure and you did nothing,” she said.
Tony Oppegard is a Kentucky attorney who has represented miners and their families for 30 years. He also served as adviser to the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Oppegard agreed that MSHA is partly to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster.
“Blankenship was a rogue operator for years and years and years and MSHA did not do enough to rein him in,” he said.
Since the Upper Big Branch blast in 2010, MSHA has made some changes. Oppegard says one action he applauds is more frequent inspections called mine blitzes or “impact inspections.”
“A blitz is when you send multiple inspectors into a mine. They take control of the phones so that nobody can call and they fan out over the mine. That’s the only way that they will truly see the conditions of the mine,” he said.
Hours after the Blankenship verdict, the United Mine Workers of America sent out a release, in which president Cecil Roberts wrote, “A message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk.”
Shirley Whitt, whose brother, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch, said she didn’t expect to have closure and didn't feel like it would feel over until after Blankenship’s sentencing.
“I’m disappointed but somewhat relieved it wasn’t a hung jury. I’m glad he was guilty — everyone knows he was guilty of conspiracy. They did say guilty so he’s not walking away from this even though it’s a misdemeanor. But when they said not guilty on the other two it was like someone just hit you in the stomach,” she said.
Whitt said she didn’t feel justice had entirely been served in the Blankenship case.
“Money does talk. If that’d been me up there they would have put me in prison for the rest of my life if I had done what this man had done so I think that’s all I have. I’m drained. It’s been a long 2 1/2 months and a long 5 1/2 years,” she said.
Blankenship was not found guilty of causing the Upper Big Branch Disaster. He is guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety standards and conspiring to impede mine safety officials, not causing the deaths of the 29 men. In seven weeks of testimony, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office called 27 witnesses including several former Upper Big Branch miners. The defense rested its case without calling a single witness.
A former miner at Upper Big Branch, Scott Halstead,testified during the trial.
“I’m doing it for the 29 that perished. They were my close friends. I worked with them every day. It was just a close knit outfit. When you lose one, you lose a part of yourself. I just wanted to do what was right and it’s all I could do to help the families of the ones that lost their loved ones,” he said.
Stanley “Goose” Stewart was one of two survivors of the disaster. He gave some of the most emotional testimony in the case, breaking down on the stand as he remembered the “code of silence” UBB miners followed.
“Working under Massey, they didn’t care. For some reason it seemed like it was their agenda to just break the rules. They didn’t have to follow the law. They had a mentality that the laws were stupid,” Stewart said later.
Blankenship On Trial Podcast
Throughout the trial, West Virginia Public Broadcasting produced a podcast called “Blankenship on Trial.” On the eve of the verdict, in December 2015, former WVPB reporter Ashton Marra and former WVPB CEO Scott Finn recorded a conversation about the verdict, its implications and what came next. Charleston attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Hissam joined them for the discussion.
An innovative theater production recently opened in New York’s storied Public Theater, a rare off-Broadway show about the real lives of families affected by the Upper Big Branch tragedy. It’s called “Coal Country,” and the dialogue is drawn from interviews with people who worked in the Upper Big Branch mine and those who lost family members there.
The songs featured in “Coal Country” were written by the legendary country music artist Steve Earle and provide an example of how these stories live on and how this tragedy is being retold and remembered, a decade later. Steve Earl performed one of the songs called “Union, God, & Country,” which is featured in the play on a recent performance on Mountain Stage.
We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from WUKY in Lexington, Ky., NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” and the Ohio Valley ReSource, which is made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Music in today’s show was provided by Jake Schepps, Kathryn Clair, Stacy Grubb and Alan Cathead Johnston with “Montcoal, West Virginia.”
Our producer is Roxy Todd. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Brittany Patterson edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi helped put the show together this week. Our executive producer is Glynis Board — congratulations to the newest member of her family. She just gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.
You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.
“Inside Appalachia” is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.