Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, was indicted on Thursday afternoon for charges relating to the April 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners. The worst mining disaster in decades, the methane-fueled blast killed miners over a mile away.
Blankenship, who retired from the company less than a year after the disaster, has previously denied wrongdoing. The indictment charges that he violated federal mine safety laws and alleges that he caused routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch during a period from Jan. 1, 2008, to April 9, 2010, according to a notice sent to the families as reported by the Charleston Gazette.
The indictment further alleges that during this same period of time, Blankenship was “part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties” by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed.
Earlier this year U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II told ABC News that his office has been methodically going “up the line, and consistently so” in assessing whether conduct by mine operators may have led to the explosion.
“What we have seen is a conspiracy to violate mine safety and health laws,” Goodwin said. “And that conspiracy was very pervasive.”
Goodwin’s investigation has produced four convictions to date, including two plea agreements and a $200-million-plus settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011.
In April, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who was governor at the time of the blast, said he believes that “Don has blood on his hands” and that the criminal activity “permeated from the top down.”
Blankenship refused to participate in the official state and federal investigations into the disaster, choosing instead to invoke the Fifth Amendment. He told ABC News that he declined to meet with investigators because “the people doing the investigating were also doing the regulating and the inspecting and when you’re investigating yourself, it’s not going to be a fair investigation.”
However Blankenship found it prudent to produce a 50-minute film called “Never Again” in which he presents the reasons for his innocence and claims to provide proof that the explosion was a result of an unexpected surge of natural gas into the coal mine shaft, not safety deficiencies.
“I would prefer to be liked by everybody,” he told ABC news earlier this year when asked about the criticism he’s faced. “And I think I’ve done things that should warrant that. But I can’t affect the way people think. Everybody has their own opinions.”