6 years after coal blast killed 29, former coal baron heads to jail for workplace safety convictions

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, left, makes his way out of the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse during a break in deliberations, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, Charleston, W.Va. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TYLER EVERT
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, left, makes his way out of the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse during a break in deliberations, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, Charleston, W.Va. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TYLER EVERT

Six years and one day ago, a methane-fueled explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in the heart of West Virginia coal country. Twenty-nine people died in the worst mining disaster in almost a half-century.

Don Blankenship, who was CEO of mine operator Massey Energy at the time, was sentenced in federal court to one year in prison Wednesday for willfully conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. He was also fined $250,000, and after his release from prison will be subject to a year of supervision.

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This is believed to be the first time a high-ranking corporate executive will see prison time for workplace safety convictions following an industrial accident. In December, a jury found Blankenship guilty of the misdemeanor conspiracy charge, but acquitted him of three felonies: securities fraud and making false statements after the explosion. Those charges, sought by federal prosecutors, would have resulted in much longer prison sentences.

The conspiracy charges, while carrying less prison time than the felony charges, were serious. The indictment stated that Blankenship “conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine” — meaning he would provide advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so the mine’s underground operators could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed.

Four Massey Energy employees who reported to Blankenship have been sentenced on safety violation charges, or for conspiring to cover up violations. Blankenship was known for how hands-on his leadership style was at Massey, a quality the prosecution made use of during the trial. The defense pointed the blame at mine regulators. Blankenship blamed the media, corporate America, unions, liberals, and environmentalists for what he saw as the nation’s problems — common bogeymen for Blankenship.

“Some measure of justice has finally caught up with Don Blankenship, and his sentencing today will add to the growing chorus of coal communities demanding that industry executives must be held accountable when their decisions destroy people’s lives — whether it be from safety violations or continuing to destroy their land, air, water, and health,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

A memorial to 29 miners killed in an April 2010 explosion is shown Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, at the entrance to the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raby
A memorial to 29 miners killed in an April 2010 explosion is shown Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, at the entrance to the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raby

What actually caused the disaster, as revealed by four investigations, was poor ventilation which allowed built-up coal dust and methane gas to be ignited by worn cutting equipment which caused a spark. The disaster was then compounded by the failure of water sprayers that were broken and clogged.

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“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 last year. “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.”

Blankenship’s fine of $250,000 may seem steep, but it’s peanuts compared to the $28 million he will not have to pay to Alpha Natural Resources, the energy company that bought Massey after Blankenship left the company in late 2010. Alpha had sought restitution payments for the fines and legal fees resulting from the disaster.

Blankenship was and is a legend in West Virginia, where his power, influence, and purported invincibility once made the idea of him facing jail time unthinkable.

“I never heard of anyone thinking that that could happen or would happen, because it had never happened before,” Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) told the New York Times.

Rolling Stone labeled him the “Dark Lord of Coal Country,” in a widely-read 2010 profile.

“We’ve been waiting for this day,” said Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother, Dean Jones, was killed in the blast. “It’s been a long time coming.”

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Dirty Money: The Politicians Keeping Cash From An Indicted Coal BaronClimate by CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HARAZ N. GHANBARI A federal grand jury sent shockwaves throughout the country last week…thinkprogress.orgWhile Blankenship will fight for an appeal, and he avoided convictions on the felony charges that would have brought longer prison sentences, his sentencing is unusual in the echelons of corporate America.

The Wall Street CEOs whose work contributed significantly to the 2008 financial collapse managed to avoid legal repercussions, and even several who lost their entire companies are now worth hundreds on millions of dollars.

Blankenship’s legal team vowed to appeal the sentence to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however Judge Irene Berger ordered that Blankenship not be free while awaiting appeal.