“Man hands on misery to man,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin, noting how one generation passes its dysfunctions on to the next. If—to quote a more recent poet—corporations are people too, does Larkin’s line also apply to corporations? A look at the Bristol, Virginia–based mining company Alpha Natural Resources suggests it might. Last year Alpha paid $7.1 billion to take over Massey Energy, making Alpha the world’s third-largest supplier of metallurgical coal. But the 40 million tons of coal Massey produced every year came with another price.
For years, Massey Energy—led by CEO Don Blankenship—had been one of our worst corporate citizens, calling the shots in its home state of West Virginia. Though Blankenship started running Massey in 1992, he didn’t attain notoriety until 2004. In that election cycle, with a $50 million ruling against Massey headed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, Blankenship bought $3 million in ads taking aim at a justice running for re-election. The negative campaign—which included ads claiming the incumbent justice had released a pedophile—worked, and the judge who won saw things in Massey’s favor. Even for the current U.S. Supreme Court—which, based on its Citizens United decision, has little problem with the role of money in elections—this was too much. The federal court ordered the winning judge to recuse himself and have the case retried in the state supreme court. (Massey ultimately won on a technicality regarding proper jurisdiction.)
In the meantime, Massey became one of the largest mountaintop removers in West Virginia. Mountaintop removal is a form of mining in which the tops of mountains are blown off to expose coal seams. Environmentalists say the practice has destroyed more than 1 million acres of forest and 2,000 miles of streams. Health studies have found increased rates of cancer and birth defects in communities near removal sites. That sounds dangerous, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as working for Massey Energy, particularly at its Upper Big Branch mine. In 2009 the mine’s safety citations doubled, to more than 500; in March 2010 alone it received 53. On April 5, 2010 methane gas in the mine ignited, setting off an explosion fueled by coal dust. The blast killed 29 miners, making it the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. (Miners later testified that falsifying the mine’s coal-dust-monitoring data was routine.)
With this sorry history, many celebrated Massey’s takeover by Alpha, whose safety record was nowhere near as poor. But in May a conveyor belt in one of the old Massey mines began to smoke, and miners were not evacuated until a federal inspector intervened. (The incident was reminiscent of a 2006 conveyor belt fire at a Massey mine that killed two miners.) The following week, federal inspectors raided 43 former Massey mines, finding 226 violations. Blankenship is gone, and Massey is no more, but their legacies live on.