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Crime stories behind the comfort and power
Thursday, June 2, 2011
TO AFFLICT THE COMFORTABLE is one mission of the media, as defined by the now almost forgotten columnist Finley Peter Dunne, celebrated in this column a few months ago. And so is, we are told, telling truth to power.
Some in the media have been rightly exercised by a decision taken this week among the comfortable and powerful. Shareholders of the two companies involved voted overwhelmingly to agree on the infamous coalmining firm Massey Energy being taken over by Alpha Natural Resources for $7.1 billion.
Long overdue though it’s been, mainstream reporters have been focusing attention on Massey ever since the explosion just over a year ago in its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men – the worst American coalmining disaster in forty years. For decades the company, led by the dedicatedly union-busting boss Dan Blankenship (seen above left, straight-arming a camera) had been collecting citations for safety violations at a clip that almost beggars belief. Blankenship set records by accruing violations at the rate of at least a thousand every two years, plus environmental violations at twice that rate. (Incidentally, he is now walking away from his company with a $12 million “retirement” package.)
But only local journalists, and specialist campaigners locally and nationally, had paid much attention to the company's shocking history. That's in the face of even a $20 million fine being imposed on Massey in 2008, the largest such fine in the Environmental Protection Agency’s existence.
Tuesday’s merger vote also amounted to a batting-away of the official independent report published just two weeks ago on last year’s disaster. Former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer who led the investigation uncompromisingly slammed Massey for “a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety” and for a "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm".
Civil lawsuits and FBI investigations are both continuing.
One intriguing detail emerged after this week's deal. Massey’s own chief operating officer Chris Adkins - who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the blast inquiries - was reported as being kept on … in order to help “integrate” Alpha's safety program with Massey’s in the newly-merged company. But within a day of the vote, Alpha's CEO Kevin Crutchfield revealed in an NPR interview that Adkins will not, after all, be joining the new executive team.
Maybe the company had thought better of its offer, but we can't know for sure. "I'm not going to say anything more about it," Crutchfield told reporter Howard Berkes.
WITH EXQUISITE TIMING – though certainly not consciously coordinated with either officialdom’s publication schedules or corporate maneuverings – a new movie is opening that explores Massey’s track-record of wrongdoing.
Like the best of documentaries, The Last Mountain (from tomorrow in New York and Washington DC, and in many other cities over the next two months) employs the particular instance of Massey-linked horrors to illustrate even wider and deeper concerns … like our national energy policy - or lack of one - and the woeful inadequacy of our democracy itself, in failing to protect the powerless against what F Scott Fitzgerald called the "vast carelessness" of the comfortable and powerful.
Produced by the punchy ex-Newsweek White House correspondent and author Clara Bingham along with documentarians Eric Grunebaum and Bill Haney - and agitatingly directed by Haney - the documentary delineates the damage Massey has visited not just upon its own workers, but also upon residents throughout Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where Massey has concentrated one especially rapacious form of its coalmining activities – the bluntly named practice of mountaintop-removal.
This method’s crude mechanics are described graphically by local campaigner Maria Gunno - a waitress and miners’ daughter, grand-daughter and sister - as getting easy access to the “layercake” that comprises deposits of “coal on rock, on coal, on rock”, simply by blasting apart a mountaintop with explosives.
The film examines the air and water pollution that results, plus the ever-present terror of toxic sludge, held back by the merest of dam-like structures. Massey’s 28 so-called “impoundments” of this thick liquid waste (containing mercury, arsenic, lead and more) have spilled 24 times in the last decade, pouring out 300 million gallons of the sludge – twice as many gallons as BP spilled with its gushing oil in the Gulf.
TO THE SOMEWHAT LOOSE labels “comfortable” and “powerful”, we should also add the more precise term: “criminal”.
Environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr (who appears often in The Last Mountain, but with scarcely more prominence than the rank-and-file activists who carry most of its narrative) was in appropriately precise verbal form when he appeared at a pre-release screening this week.
The preview was held at the Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab, which this month celebrates a decade of determinedly community-centered work from the maybe surprising base of a commuter town north of New York City bearing the gratingly dainty name of Pleasantville.
It’s a community very different from Coal River Valley, but it’s suffering energy-based anxieties of its own, thanks to the nearby Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits on the Hudson River. Kennedy is already bedecked with praise in the Hudson Valley for his efforts with the Riverkeeper campaign for clean and safe water.
In conversation after the Film Center screening Kennedy pulled no punches in describing Massey’s operations as “a criminal enterprise”.
He has, of course, strong basis for that contention. It’s rare that high-profile campaigners like him get to meet their targets head-on, but it happens in the film, when the attorney sits down, in a local diner, with industry representative Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association; but no real conclusion is reached. More to the point, I can recall a rare debate at Charleston University last year (pictured above right) between Kennedy and Massey’s own chief at the time, the lamentable Blankenship, in which the executive acknowledged that mountaintop removal simply can’t happen without the law being broken.
Kennedy: “Is it possible to do mountaintop removal mining without violating the Clean Water Act?”
Blankenship: "I don't think that it's possible without a single violation.”
Just as sharply, Kennedy reemphasized after the film that Massey has been just one part of a grand alliance of mining companies, coal-hauling railroad companies and coal-burning electricity utilities who together have spent nearly $1.5 billion on political lobbying over the past decade.
My own reporting has made me think that the politicians who are responsible for regulating the energy industry with such reprehensible meekness are simply being accessories to crime. For his part Kennedy was perhaps clearer (while also aiming more broadly) when he described the entire process of political campaign finance which gets those politicians elected in the first place as nothing more than “licensed bribery”.
Kennedy said, unsurprisingly, that he’s proud of the film. And it sure is salutary to see some patriotic American movie-making that so avidly reveals criminal assaults on our “purple mountain majesties” (aptly, Katharine Lee Bates’ lyrics for America The Beautiful serve as unspoken sub-text to the filmic imagery) and so clearly connects them with the equally iniquitous undermining of our essential democratic values.
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