Coal baron seeking Senate seat spent a year in prison for disaster that killed 29 miners

Blankenship spent a year in federal prison for conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy who recently served a one-year sentence in federal prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards, has filed federal election papers to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.

The documents, first reported by Eyewitness News, specify that Blankenship will run as a Republican. Blankenship joins what is shaping up to be a contentious Republican primary, with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) both having announced their intention to run. The winner of the primary will likely go on to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), whose seat is a major target for Republicans looking to gain an advantage in the Senate in 2018 (though Manchin will likely face challengers in the Democratic primary himself). The Cook Political Report has rated the race as a toss-up.

Unlike Morrisey and Jenkins, Blankenship will likely have a difficult time campaigning throughout the state. As part of his conditions of supervision, he cannot leave the state of Nevada, where he moved this summer, without permission from his probation officer or a federal judge. Blankenship’s supervision ends in May, two days after the Republican primary.

In 2010, an explosion in Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners, the worst coal mining disaster in nearly four decades. Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor for his role in ignoring federal mine safety regulations, but was acquitted of three more serious felony charges. While serving his year-long sentence in federal prison, Blankenship released a 67-page booklet casting himself as an “American political prisoner.”

He has also released a video suggesting Manchin was responsible for helping the government cover up its responsibility for both the Upper Big Branch disaster and the 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

Blankenship has contended that the Upper Big Branch mine disaster was caused by a directive from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors to cut air flow to the mine in half the day before the explosion. Four investigations, however, found that the disaster was caused by worn and broken equipment that sparked and ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Blankenship had ordered Massey Energy to put safety improvements on hold, writing to one executive in 2008 that “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time.”

Blankenship asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of his conviction, which the court denied to hear in October of this year. Blankenship also asked President Donald Trump to review the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, and to oppose harsher punishments for coal supervisors who violate health and safety regulations.

Even before the Upper Big Branch incident, Blankenship was a vocal critic of federal attempts to strengthen safety regulations, saying in a speech in 2009 that the idea that politicians in Congress “care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.” Blankenship does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, saying in 2008, “I don’t believe climate change is real.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Sen. Joe Manchin will need to win the Democratic primary in West Virginia before advancing to the general election.