The Coal Runs Memos: Safety Ignored at a Mine

Playing by the Rules: Ethics as Work – The Coal Runs Memos premieres Wednesday, June 7 at 8pm on WLIW.

In its third episode, Playing by the Rules: Ethics as Work looks back at the Massey Energy company and the disaster at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia with The Coal Runs Memos. Massey was run by the hard-charging, larger than life CEO, Don Blankenship. Prosecutors say that his resistance to regulation led to the deadly mining disaster. They would not only put Blankenship on trial, but also the company’s culture.

Twenty-nine men perished on April 5, 2010 in a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. It remains the deadliest mining disaster in America of the last 45 years. Government investigators blamed the tragedy on bad management and a culture fostered by the company’s controversial CEO, Don Blankenship, who they say placed production over safety. Blankenship would eventually be convicted of conspiring to evade mine safety regulations; in May 2017 he was released following one year in federal prison. Playing By the Rules: Ethics at Work looks at how ethics play a major role in contemporary business practices and challenges viewers to think about what they would do if they found their values challenged at work.

Safety Measures Not in Place

What led to the massive explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine? In a report nearly 1,000 pages long, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found that if basic safety measures had been in place, the disaster would not have happened. “The Run Coal Memos” looks at the evidence uncovered by federal and state investigators surrounding allegations of safety violations and hazardous working conditions. Key to the government’s case — the infamous “run coal memos,” internal company documents which investigators say demonstrated a disregard for safety and a corporate attitude which put profits over people.

Voices from the Mines and Massey Energy

The documentary features powerful interviews with those who were close to the events, including Stanley “Goose” Stewart, who worked at Upper Big Branch for 15 years and was heading into the mine to start his shift at the time of the explosion, and who long had concerns about the mine’s safety; Harley Taylor, a safety officer at Upper Big Branch; Booth Goodwin, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who oversaw the prosecution of Don Blankenship; and Tim Bailey, an attorney who represented the families of some of those killed.

Goodwin calls Massey Energy, the company which owned Upper Big Branch, “a rogue coal company” when it was run by Blankenship. Massey is no longer in business; after the tragedy, it was sold to a competitor. Under Blankenship, Massey became one of the largest coal producers in the U.S., but it was also cited for more safety violations than any mining company in America, with more than 50 people dying in Massey mines during his 10 years as CEO. The documentary also interviews Morgan Massey, the patriarch of the Massey family. Mr. Massey was no longer with the company at the time of the tragedy but remained close with Blankenship and says the popular image of the embattled CEO is a false one. Blankenship, he says, always put safety first because “it’s good business.” Blankenship himself did not respond to interview requests.

Watch the first two episodes of Playing by the Rules: Ethics as Work, which examine whistle blowing at CitiMortage, and the Enron collapse.