BOOK REVIEW: 'Thunder on the Mountain': WV University Press Releases Paperback Edition of Peter Galuszka's Examination of Massey Energy's Role in 2010 Explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Thunder on the Mountain': WV University Press Releases Paperback Edition of Peter Galuszka's Examination of  Massey Energy's Role in 2010 Explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine

The timing of the publication in November of the paperback edition of Peter A. Galuszka's "Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal" (West Virginia University Press, 300 pages, photos, notes, index, foreword by Denise Giardina, $19.99) couldn't have been better.

Galuszka's examination of the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, WV on April 5, 2010, was published in hardback by St. Martin's Press in 2012.

 A few days after the paperback edition of this must-read book hit the shelves --  on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 --  Donald L. Blankenship, 64, Massey's CEO at the time of the accident,  was indicted by a federal grand jury in Charleston, WV on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at Upper Big Branch Mine, when 29 miners lost their lives.

The Charleston Gazette story stated that: "The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections." For the story:

Upper Big Branch (UBB)  was the worst coal mining accident in 40 years and triggered events that led to Blankenship's departure from Massey -- with a golden parachute settlement totaling $86 million -- and the company's acquisition in 2011 by Bristol, VA-based Alpha Natural Resources.

In his exhaustive investigative reporting, Galuszka shows how the events that lead to the UBB explosion were rooted in the cynical corporate culture of Massey and its over-the-top, in-your-face CEO Don Blankenship, and were part of an endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and environmental abuse that has dominated the Appalachian coalfields since coal was first discovered there. 

He also tells the story of Massey Energy's board of directors and how they failed to rein in Blankenship.  Galuszka doesn't hold out much hope that Alpha -- despite statements from them about safety training -- will change as coal companies bury the most insidious dangers deep underground, all in search of higher profits, and hide the true costs from regulators, unions, and investors alike.

But the disaster at Upper Big Branch goes beyond the coalfields of West Virginia. Galuszka travels to China and Mongolia, where large deposits of the metallurgic coal that China and India lust for threaten the future of central Appalachia coal fields in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

This new paperback edition contains a foreword by Denise Giardina that provides an update on Massey Energy and Donald Blankenship, Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company during the UBB disaster, and recounts her own experiences with Massey Energy and the United Mine Workers  in the 1980s. This edition also includes a notes section and a bibliography.

Rarely in my 48 years in the news business, on five daily newspapers -- including more than 9 years at The Milwaukee Sentinel and almost 15 years at the Los Angeles Times -- have I seen such an excellent combination of investigative reporting and elegant writing as is on display on "Thunder on the Mountain".

For a New York Times story on the mood in the West Virginia coalfields after Blankenship's indictment:

About the author

PETER A. GALUSZKA is a veteran journalist who has covered worldwide energy issues, especially coal, for several decades. A former West Virginia resident, he logged thousands of miles on the windy mountain roads of Central Appalachia and traveled to Mongolia, China, and Japan to track down the Massey story. The former Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek, he now lives in Chesterfield, Virginia, near Richmond, where Massey Energy had its headquarters.

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