The Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the morning after an explosion killed 29 workers.
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for allegedly conspiring to violate mine safety standards in the run-up to the 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine. The four-count indictment describes a culture of negligence under Blankenship's watch, in which essential safety measures were ignored as the company sought to squeeze every last cent out of the ground. Blankenship, who left Massey in 2010, pleaded not guilty Thursday.
But the indictment also came as a sobering reminder: In the four years since the disaster, little has been done to make the mining industry safer. Legislation designed to rein in the worst offenders and give regulators teeth was beaten back by big business. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in safety fines have gone uncollected.
"We've taken some actions after the various accidents that have taken place, but unfortunately, Congress can apparently only legislate in this area after someone dies," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who sponsored mine-safety legislation in the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion.
"I've been there after the accidents, I've been standing with many of these politicians—they all pledge they're gonna do something for the families, that they care about the miners. And then everybody goes back to business as usual."
Jim Webb is running for president. The former secretary of the Navy and Virginia senator launched a presidential exploratory committee on Thursday, becoming the first Democrat to formally dip his toe in the 2016 waters. Webb explained his candidacy in a video that looks like it was filmed by the people who make commercials for personal-injury attorneys:
A Republican for most of his life, Webb endeared himself to Democrats when he switched parties and beat incumbent GOP Sen. George Allen in 2006 by just a few thousand votes. Webb ran that campaign on an anti-Iraq War message, touting his own experience in Vietnam, but may have been pushed across the finish line by Allen, who called a Democratic volunteer "Macaca" (an obscure North African racial slur) at a campaign event.
As a senator he was a bit of an iconoclast, defined mostly by his disdain for Washington (something most senators espouse but rarely act on). His first meeting with President George W. Bush ended with the senator walking away furiously, reportedly on the verge of throwing a punch, after Dubya asked Webb about his son serving in Iraq. He sought to carve out a niche for himself by working for criminal justice reform, but left office before any political momentum developed on the issue. And then he left, after one term, leaving Democrats to defend a purple seat against Allen. His most impressive resume item may be his Navy Cross citation:
On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb's platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker.
Webb has at least a few bumps to smooth over, though. He defended the Confederate flag and "the venerable Robert E. Lee" in his book Born Fighting, about the Scots-Irish, and in 1979, he wrote an essay for Washingtonian titled "Why Women Can't Fight"—a spirited case against admitting women into service academies. As a senator from a major coal-producing state, he opposed proposals to combat climate change. And only last month expressed his support for same-sex marriage. Beating an entrenched Republican in Virginia as a centrist in 2006 is one thing—but winning a Democratic presidential nomination requires winning Democratic primary voters.
Update, 7:10 p.m. ET: Late Wednesday, Jay Leno said in a brief phone interview that he had called the National Shooting Sports Foundation to cancel his scheduled performance at the SHOT Show. He also said that he'd spoken with Po Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance to let her know. "I understand it's Newtown, and of course I get it," Leno told Mother Jones. "It's just sometimes, mistakes get made." (Read the original story below):
Gun control advocates aren't laughing about Jay Leno's next move.
On Tuesday, several gun violence-prevention groups called on the comedian to cancel his appearance at January's Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT), an annual event put on by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Newtown, Connecticut. A petition posted by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence accuses Leno of "helping to legitimize a crass commercialism which values profit over human lives" by speaking to this group, which lobbied against the background checks bill in Congress following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The drive is backed by the Campaign to Unload, which pushes for divestment from gun companies, and the Newtown Action Alliance, founded by residents of the Connecticut town who support gun-safety legislation. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has pushed corporate restaurants and retailers to take a stand against open-carry activists in their stores, has also launched a social media campaign against Leno.
"I'm not sure if Jay Leno has done his research and understands that NSSF is the corporate gun lobby and they spend a significant amount of money to lobby congressional leaders to not pass significant gun reform legislation," says Newtown Action Alliance chairman Po Murray, whose children previously attended Sandy Hook. "It's a disheartening as a Newtown resident to see him make this appearance at the SHOT Show. So we're urging him to cancel his appearance."
Seats for the event, held at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, go for $135 apiece. Leno's publicist did not respond to a request for comment.
Don't expect much drama when Louisiana voters go to polls again next month—especially in the 6th Congressional District. After fending off an eclectic field of challengers, Republican Garret Graves is facing former Democratic Gov. (and convicted felon) Edwin Edwards in a runoff election. Graves, who resigned his job as director of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in February, is expected to win handily in a district Mitt Romney carried by 30 points.
As one of GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal's top lieutenants and a former staffer for some of Washington's most high-powered politicians-turned-lobbyists, Graves has a base of political support that would be the envy of many in his class. But that's not what makes him unique. Rather, what sets him apart is that he's one of the only incoming Republican congressmen to seriously grapple with the effects of climate change.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was indicted by a federal grand jury on Thursday, more than four years after an explosion at his company's Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 coal miners. The four-count indictment alleges that Blankenship "conspired to commit and cause routine violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards" in order to "produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money." (Blankenship was also indicted for allegedly making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission.)
Blankenship, characteristically, is not backing down. In a statement, his attorney, William Taylor, said that "Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted." Taylor called Blankenship "a tireless advocate for mine safety" and argued the prosecution had been triggered by Blankenship's "outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats."
But the 43-page indictment tells a different story—in which Massey employees devised secret codes to thwart safety inspectors, and workers risked drowning while laboring in flooded mines that lacked even the minimum safety precautions.