Former coal exec Blankenship found guilty over fatal coal mine blast

On Dec. 3, a jury in West Virginia found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of violating federal coal mine safety laws related to a 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 miners.

Blankenship, now 65 years old, retired from Massey Energy, then Central Appalachia’s largest coal producer, in late 2010. Massey was then taken over in June 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources. Federal prosecutors had accused his company of running a mine safety program that put corporate profits ahead of safety. Blankenship had denied the charges, saying Massey ran a good safety program.

The trial of Blankenship at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia had gone on for weeks, and the jury took a long time to reach its verdict. While Blankenship was found guilty of violating safety laws, he was acquitted on charges of making false statements to federal officials and securities fraud (Massey Energy was a publicly-traded company at the time). His lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict.

The U.S. Attorney for that region, Booth Goodwin, said the jury found Blankenship guilty on a federal charge of conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards. “This is a landmark day for the safety of coal miners, and not just coal miners, but all working men and women,” statedGoodwin. “The jury’s verdict sends a clear and powerful message:  It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, or how powerful you are – if you gamble with the safety of the people who work for you, you will be held accountable.”

Over the course of the trial the jury heard evidence from 27 witnesses. Many of these witnesses were coal miners who worked at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine prior to the 2010 explosion, and they testified in detail from their firsthand knowledge of the unsafe working conditions at UBB, violations of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations, and organized efforts to obstruct and interfere with MSHA inspectors, Goodwin said. The jury heard from Bill Ross, former Manager of Technical Services at Massey, who testified that he warned Blankenship about the company’s practice of violations, and told the defendant prior to the UBB explosion that Massey’s standard tactic of ignoring or defrauding MSHA could not be sustained without the possibility of a serious accident that could have fatalities, said Goodwin.

Said Goodwin: “This is the first time that I am aware of that the chief executive officer of a major corporation has been convicted of a workplace safety crime. It is my hope that this case will make a difference throughout this country, and make the places where working men and women spend their days a little bit safer.”

Blankenship faces up to one year in federal prison, and a fine of up to twice the gain or loss that resulted from his conduct, when he is sentenced on March 23, 2016, in federal court in Charleston, W.Va.

Blankenship’s conviction is the fifth criminal conviction credited to this investigation. In addition to the convictions of individuals, the results of the investigation also include a resolution of over $200 million with Alpha Natural Resources after it acquired Massey. This agreement established a foundation dedicated to mine safety and health research, the first of its kind, and set aside nearly $50 million in funding for the foundation.

Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a Dec. 3 statement about the jury verdict: “For decades, Don Blankenship has gambled with the lives of his employees and neighbors all in pursuit of maximum profits. Today justice finally caught up with him. We hope this serves as a strong deterrent to all the other fossil fuel executives who have similar moral and legal obligations to protect their workers and the communities in which they operate.”

The Sierra Club wasn’t so much directly involved in safety issues, but it had worked for years with environmental groups like the Ohio Valley Enviromental Coalition to battle Massey Energy in federal court over mine pollution issues, particularly as it relates to the Clean Water Act.

(Editor’s note: This story was updated through the day on Dec. 3 to account for new information.)

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.