Former coal exec Blankenship sentenced to one year, $250,000 fine

Acting U.S Attorney for Southern West Virginia Carol Casto announced April 6 that former Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship was sentenced that day to a year in federal prison and ordered to pay a $250,000 fine.

Blankenship was sentenced for conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards after a jury returned a guilty verdict on the federal crime. This relates to an explosion in 2010 at the Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers. Blakenship retired from the company later that year, with Massey Energy then sold in June 2011 to Alpha Natural Resources.

“This sentence is a victory for workers and workplace safety. It lets companies and their executives know that you can’t take chances with the lives of coal miners and get away with it,” stated Casto. “Putting the former chief executive officer of a major corporation in prison sends a message that violating mine safety laws is a serious crime, and those who break those laws will be held accountable.”  

Over the course of the trial, in which jury selection began in October 2015 and the jury returned a guilty verdict in December 2015, the jury heard evidence from 27 witnesses called by the United States. 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.

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 rampant 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. The evidence also showed that Blankenship received daily updates on safety violations and helped perpetuate them, said Casto.

“Today’s sentence marks the culmination of a comprehensive, joint investigation that took over five years to complete and resulted in five criminal convictions.” said Special Agent in Charge Scott S. Smith of the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office. “Along with dedicated prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and investigators in United States Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, the FBI is committed to holding those who commit crimes by enabling safety violations and who place profits above the value of human life accountable.”

“Donald Blankenship’s trial and conviction came after an explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine. His sentencing today reaffirms the responsibility of company executives to ensure they adhere to health and safety standards. The Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General will continue to work with the Mine Safety and Health Administration and our law enforcement partners to investigate criminal worker safety violations that pose a threat to American workers,” said John Spratley, Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia Regional Office, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General, Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud Investigations.

The prosecution was the result of an investigation that, including Blankenship, resulted in five criminal convictions. In addition to the convictions of individuals, the outcome of the investigation also included 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.

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.