Former coal baron Don Blankenship was found guilty of conspiring to violate coal mine safety standards Thursday.
Blankenship, who headed up now-defunct Massey Energy until 2010, was indicted last November on charges that he violated federal mine safety rules and health standards at the Upper Big Branch coal mine between 2008 and 2010. The Upper Big Branch mine was the site of an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners — a disaster that’s considered the worst the coal mining industry has seen since 1970.
Though the federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia did find Blankenship guilty of conspiracy, it did not find him guilty of securities fraud or of making false statements after the disaster. As Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports, Blankenship faced three counts of felony charges — charges that, if he had been found guilty, would have had him faced with up to 30 years in prison. The jury only found Blankenship guilty of a misdemeanor conspiracy count, however, so Blankenship will instead spend up to one year in prison. Blankenship’s attorney said Thursday that he doesn’t think his client will spend a single day in prison, and thinks the jury’s decision will be overturned once it’s appealed.
“We are disappointed in the verdict. We wanted to be acquitted on all counts, but the fact the jury acquitted him on all felonies and convicted only on the misdemeanor is some consolation,” attorney Bill Taylor said.
Blankenship, who has maintained that his prosecution was politically-motivated, is expected to be sentenced in March.
Twenty-seven witnesses testified at the trial — testimony that took 24 days to complete. More than a dozen of those were former mine workers. The miners, as the Ward reports, spoke of working in mines that had high levels of dust and inadequate access to fresh air. Despite these problems, they said they were ordered to keep working.
“The defendant ran Massey in a way that violating mine laws was inevitable, and he knew it,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said during closing arguments on November 17. “He knew that you simply could not mine the amount of coal he demanded with the limited amount of people he was willing to devote and the resources that he was willing to devote without breaking the law. And he kept right on doing it.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby also addressed the jury about the mine’s conditions.
“Picture walking through a mine and seeing everywhere in the tunnels around you coal dust, knowing it’s explosive, knowing there’s an easy way to make it safe by putting down pure white rock dust on top of it, but the people in charge won’t take the time to do it,” Ruby said. “Fast forward a few years to this trial and picture having the defense try to blame the coal miners for the safety violations that happened at UBB.”