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In WV coal mining disaster, a CEO is held accountable

Beth Spence, who retired from AFSC in 2014, was the lead writer of a investigative report on the Upper Big Branch disaster, which helped prosecutors indict coal CEO Don Blankenship later that year.  Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

History was made in a federal court in West Virginia this week when Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in prison for actions leading up to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, which killed 29 coal miners.

By coincidence, the verdict came on April 6, 2016, six years and a day after the tragedy.

Although thousands of U.S. workers die on the job every year, this case marked the first time that a CEO of a major company was held responsible. And the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) played a role in bringing this to pass.

AFSC’s roots run deep in West Virginia’s coal country. They go back nearly a century when a fledgling Quaker organization sent roving Friends to investigate hard times there in 1922 and come up with practical solutions.

Since the 1920s, AFSC has provided support to coal miners and their families in West Virginia.

They extend through the New Deal era, when Friends were instrumental in shaping federal relief policies in mining areas devastated by the Great Depression. And in the coal boom of the late 1970s, the organization even helped prepare the first women miners for work underground.

The AFSC West Virginia Economic Justice Project stood with miners in the 1989-1990 Pittston coal strike, providing material and moral support. It stood with the United Mine Workers of America in other struggles for workers’ rights and to preserve promised benefits to retirees in the wake of corporate shell games and bankruptcies.

And, through the work of Beth Spence, who retired from AFSC at the end of 2014, it helped bring about this verdict.

Beth is a native of Logan County, West Virginia in the heart of the state’s coalfields. Most of her life has been spent in coalfield struggles for justice. Her first big effort was the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, when an illegal coal dam owned by Pittston Coal Company burst and killed 125 people, wiped out over a dozen Logan County communities and left thousands homeless.

A memorial for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch tragedy, taken during a service in 2010.  Photo: AFSC/Beth SpenceBeth was later active in the historic Miners for Democracy movement and the Black Lung movement, which helped win recognition and relief for miners who suffered from this often fatal disease. She mentored several AFSC staff in West Virginia and worked for the organization from 2001 until her retirement.

Given her background, it was not surprising that she was asked to serve on independent investigative panels commissioned by then Gov. Joe Manchin (now a U.S. senator) to investigate Massey fatalities at the 2006 Massey Aracoma mine fire, which killed two miners.

Under the leadership of former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, Beth was the lead writer of a report on the incident that helped pave the way for the most severe criminal penalties levied against a coal company to that date. The report was also used in subsequent lawsuits by the families of those who died.

When in the wake of Upper Big Branch, Gov. Manchin again tapped McAteer to lead an investigation, Beth was again recruited to take part. She spent most of a year on task--listening to testimony, talking with family members, and even going underground. She was the lead writer in a book-length report the team released nearly five years ago.

This report was the first of several on the disaster to be released by the miner’s union, the federal government, and the state of West Virginia. All subsequent investigations backed up the original report.

Rather than merely documenting technicalities, the report by Beth’s team chronicled the “culture of deviance” which prevailed at Massey as well as the politics of coal.

It’s safe to say that this report helped provide a blueprint for federal prosecutors, who indicted Don Blankenship in November 2014.

When asked to comment on the verdict, Beth had this to say, “While a year in prison is a small price to pay for 29 lives, the sentencing of Don Blankenship sends a loud message to corporate leaders that they can no longer place profits above the safety of workers. They will be held accountable.”

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