Jonathan Chait

In Blankenship We Trust

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Don Blankenship, owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine that was the site of Monday's horrific explosion, is a long-time bete noir of unions, environmentalists, and government regulation of all kinds. Therefore, it is time for conservatives to start rallying to his side. Here's Chris Stirewalt of the Washington Examiner:

The day that at least 25 miners were killed in a West Virginia coal mine blast, the U.S. secretary of Labor said that they would not have “died in vain.”

What Secretary Linda Solis apparently meant was that this tragedy would be put to good use – exploited in an effort to crack down on Don Blankenship, a non-union coal operator who espouses conservative political views and spends big money to beat Democrats in elections.

Of course, Blankenship's contempt for labor and regulation is of a piece with the poor safety conditions at his mines. A 2003 profile of Blankenship in Forbes, a highly-pro-business publication, detailed the latter:

The state's Surface Mine Board, which includes the vice chairman of the state lobbying group for the coal industry, called Massey's actions at Madison "absolutely the worst behavior by any company that any member of this board has ever seen over the decades that this board has been in existence."

Over the two years through 2001 Massey was cited by West Virginia officials for violating regulations 501 times. Its three biggest rivals, mining twice as much coal in the state as Massey, were cited a collective 175 times. Blankenship says Massey is unfairly targeted by regulators. "We don't pay much attention to the violation count," he says. ...

But the roots of carelessness run deep. "People make mistakes," says a retired mine superintendent with two decades at Massey. "But when they make them over and over and nothing is done--that sends a message."

As for his hostility to unions, the profile also shows that Blankenship has pursued a low-wage strategy at all costs:

In the winter of 2000-01 electricity demand rose and the spot price for Central Appalachian coal jumped from $24 a ton to $48 a ton. Mining companies began digging furiously, hiring more workers and pushing up wages. Blankenship refused to match the increases. Miners quit in droves. The timing was awful. Blankenship had planned to increase Massey coal production for the coming year from 44 million tons to 56 million tons and so needed to add staff. He had to turn to people with little experience. By the end of 2001 half of his 5,000-person staff were new hires.

Now, we don't know a lot about this accident. But the general portrait of Blankenship is a figure utterly contemptuous of anything that stands in the way of profits. The risks of a business strategy that places low wages above experienced workers and disdains regulation are fairly clear. The Forbes profile emphasizes the risks to Blankenship's stock value, but of course the costs imposed upon workers and the environment are even greater.

Stirewalt, by contrast, takes it as self-evidently true that the Upper Big Branch Mine was sufficiently well-regulated:

all mines are being constantly written up and fined. It’s a hovering regulatory presence that works more like a health code inspection at restaurants than consumer product safety. Small problems get written up and corrected. Any big problems or an accumulation of un-remedied small ones get you shut down.

Believe me when I say that the Obama administration would hardly have punished a mine regulator who wanted to shut down a Massey mine.

This is a revealing passage. Stirewalt knows that regulation is onerous and the Obama administration fiercely opposed to business. In the fact of a massive event that would seem to obviate his assumptions, he simply reasserts them, as if an article of faith.

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