“It’s a Felony to Rip Off Shareholders but Violating Safety Regulations is a Misdemeanor.”

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Coal River Mountain Watch’s Bob Kincaid says ripping off shareholders comes with a harder punishment than killing 29 people

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

A judge in West Virginia sentenced the former CEO of coal company, Massey Energy, to 1 year in jail and fined him 250 thousand dollars. You may remember Donald Blankenship from the 2010 explosion and Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners.

With us to discuss whether justice has been served is our guest Bob Kincaid. Bob is the Board President of the Coal River Mountain Watch and he’s joining us now from Fayette County, West Virginia. Thanks so much for joining us Bob.

BOB KINCAID: It’s my pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: So Bob first let’s take at the look of the reaction of one of the victim’s relatives, his name is Tommy Davis. He lost his son, his brother, and a nephew in the explosion. Let’s take a look.

TOMMY DAVIS: I miss my family. He hugged his and all he gets is a year. And she done great; she give him what he can give. But they need to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people like that who put greed, money over human life.

DESVARIEUX: So Bob do you think Blankenship got off easy here?

KINCAID: I think that Don Blankenship certainly was not punished for that which he did. 250 thousand dollars in terms of a fine is going to be meaningless to him. He can shake that out of the sofa cushions. As for doing a year in jail, the idea the year in club fed somehow provides recompense for the shady business practices, shark business practices, that led to 29 human beings being incinerated past recognition as ever having been human, no. That’s not justice. 

DESVARIEUX: So how is he actually responsible? Can you speak to that a little bit?

KINCAID: Well what Don Blankenship did is he, years before had done everything in his power to break the Union and had successfully done so. And then instituted a culture inside Massey Energy that said that if you weren’t moving coal, you weren’t working, you weren’t earning your money. Anytime spent on safety issues was time that was taking away from profit. So consequently, there was, he created a culture of disdain for vital safety regulations that were designed to save people’s lives.

DESVARIEUX: But Blankenship, he did receive the maximum possible sentence for his crime which is a misdemeanor. He was found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. So if you’re arguing Justice wasn’t exactly served here, what would real justice look like then? 

KINCAID: Well as far as I’m concerned, real justice would be him spending the rest of his life out in Supermax in Colorado with the Unabomber for a neighbor. But the larger problem here, Jessica is that that Judge did sentence him to as much as she could give him. The problem is there was nothing for her to give and that’s because the Congress in it’s infinite wisdom has determined that for instance, he had been charged with the felony of defrauding shareholders. But the misdemeanor of conspiring to get around safety regulations. So what we know from the Congress of the United States is that it’s a felony to rip off a shareholder but conspiring to violate safety regulations that incinerates 29 human beings, that’s a misdemeanor, no biggie. 

DESVARIEUX: Yea, so Bob this isn’t the first time that environmental and legal transgressions have occurred against coal miners and I’m sure you would even argue, West Virginians. But there’s always been this sense of loyalty to the coal industry amongst West Virginians, at least that’s what’s portrayed in Washington. Why are people so loyal if they really are that loyal to coal?

KINCAID: Well we have to define that loyalty in the first place. Coal is all that West Virginia has had for all intents and purposes for the last 125 years. It has been the dominate driving industry of the state. And while there were labor uprisings in the early 20th century for instance, those were not miners being loyal to coal. Those were miners demanding their human rights. So it’s a loyalty born of desperation. You’re loyal to that which is beyond, can we even call that loyalty when it’s all there is?

DESVARIEUX: Alright and Bob your experience as an advocate, is that shifting at all? Are people sort of pointing out that coal isn’t necessarily in their best interest when it comes to climate change and things of that nature?

KINCAID: I live in a place Jessica where science and facts are not particularly welcomed. The coal industry denies the reality of climate change. Coal itself is treated like a religion now. Some sort of orthodoxy as opposed to a mere business. Climate change isn’t something that people really even take seriously around here. You can’t even get people here to acknowledge that most of the coal is in fact, gone. We just elected a Republican legislature a couple years ago, for the first time in 83 years, essentially on the promise that they were going to make more coal magically appear underground. It just isn’t there. People don’t want to let go of this because it’s all we know and the larger conversation about what the future would be that should’ve taken place 40 years ago, didn’t take place and we just pretended it was always going to be there. Well now we’re at the place where we have to confront our reality. 

DESVARIEUX: And when you say it’s just not there, what do you mean by that? How can you tell how much coal is still left in the ground?

KINCAID: Well you wouldn’t be blowing up mountains to get 6 inch seams of coal if there were 6 foot seams still to be mined underground. We reached peak coal in Appalachia years ago and of course the peak theory says that once you pass that peak it’s going to be harder and more expensive to get at and of lower quality. That’s exactly where we are. We are simply running out in Appalachia. The rest, there’s still plenty of coal in other parts of the country but we’ve had just about all the, we’ve given just about all the coal industry could take.

DESVARIEUX: Alright Bob hang tight we’re going to pause the conversation here and we’ll be back to talk about the future of coal. We’ll be right back.

Part 2

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our conversation with Bob Kincaid to talk about the future of coal in West Virginia. Bob is the Board President of the Coal River Mountain Watch. Thanks again for being with us Bob.

BOB KINCAID: Oh it’s an absolute pleasure Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Bob, a lot of people are under the impression that coal mining has been on the decline and there’s really a shift toward natural gas in the United States and globally really. Scotland recently closed its last coal fired power plant which was really big news for those who’ve been supporting climate change activism. So is coal production on the decline in West Virginia however?

KINCAID: It is on the decline in some ways and not so much in others. We’ve had a lot of layoffs of underground miners who have had their lives turned upside down. Coal companies have gone into bankruptcy which means they’ll simply use the legal mechanisms of the bankruptcy code to get rid of things that they call liabilities like pensions and healthcare obligations, and they’ll come back leaner and meaner. Meanwhile the West Virginia Department for Environmental Protection receives new permit applications for mountain top removal jobs on an almost weekly, if not daily basis. Frankly while it takes a lot more people to work underground and they have been laid off. The blasting is still taking place in West Virginia. The mountains are still being blown apart. The poisons from those blasts are still boiling and royaling and rolling down over communities. Still being consumed by unwitting victims who don’t even bear a relationship to the coal industry. And the coal itself is still getting on trains, still going to the seashore and getting on boats and going all over the world.

DESVARIEUX: Can you just give us a quick example of one of those companies that has claimed bankruptcy? 

KINCAID: Well sure. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy who of course was responsible for the Upper Big Branch Disaster, went into bankruptcy. Peabody is going into bankruptcy. Arch Coal went into bankruptcy. All of these things merely allow them to retool themselves to come back with fewer liabilities. Like I said, you get rid of pensions but at the same time you go to the bankruptcy court and you say, Judge can we play monumental obscene horrendous bonuses to our executives for purposes of retention?

DESVARIEUX: Alright. In light of all these layoffs, 3 weeks ago, the Obama administration actually announced it would spend 65.8 million dollars to aid communities in states like West Virginia and Kentucky where they rely on income from the coal industry. So essentially the idea is that they can transition to other employment with these funds. What do you think of the Obama administration’s transition plan and are there other alternatives?

KINCAID: Well you can retrain a worker to do something all day long. But the jobs have to be there to be done. What we need in Appalachia is something on a order of a Marshall plan. You know, there are more than 500 mountains here that have been blown to smithereens. There’s over a thousand miles of streams that have been buried. Those streams are running with poison. There’s poison in the air. Less than 5% of all mountains that have been blown up in the course of, the practice of mountain top removal have ever been reclaimed within the meaning of the law. If we had a Marshall plan for West Virginia and Appalachia we could put every out of work miner back to work on a government salary as far as I’m concerned. Cleaning up the mess that the coal industry has made because they never, ever, ever, actually do their jobs in terms of what they’re supposed to do after they get done with one of these god awful surface mining operations.

DESVARIEUX: And can you be a little bit more specific Bob? When you say a Marshall plan, what are we talking about? What would the government have to do?

KINCAID: I think it would be billions of dollars. Absolutely billions of dollars. It would be real monetary support to people who formerly worked in the industry. At the same time that we try to retool a new industry for the 21st century. Again we didn’t get in this mess overnight. This is the product of 125 years of corporate and governmental abuse of the people of this region. We’ve got to have something else to do. We can’t just sit around and pine for the bygone days of the coal industry, that never really bought any prosperity in the first place. 

DESVARIEUX: So are you advocating for more green jobs then?

KINCAID: I would love some green jobs. I think I’d love to see solar farms. I’d love to see wind farms on some of our mountain ridges as a replacement. Look, the transition toward natural gas, you know people always say it’s cleaner. Cleaner does not mean clean, Jessica. That stuffs filthy and it contributes to climate change and it’s a part of the problem. We are eventually going to have to learn to transition away from all these hydrocarbons, all these fossil fuels, if we want to continue to have a planet that’s habitable for human beings.

DESVARIEUX: Alright Bob Kincaid joining us from West Virginia. Thank you so much for being with us.

KINCAID: My pleasure Jessica, anytime.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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