One of West Virginia’s former coal barons was indicted on November 13 for his direct involvement in violating mine safety laws, which ultimately contributed to the death of 29 miners at a 2010 mine explosion.
Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, was indicted on four counts, with a federal grand jury charging him with routinely plotting to break federal law in order to maximize profits. The case focuses on the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia where the coal mogul broke rules and tried to stop mining inspectors from conducting safety reviews.
“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the 43-page indictment reads. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
But on April 5, 2010, an explosion occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine, killing 29 coal miners in one of the worst mining disasters in recent memory. A follow up investigation found that safety violations willfully committed by Massey Energy contributed to the conditions in which coal dust and methane were able to explode.
Blankenship maintains his innocence and in a statement his attorney called him a “tireless advocate for mine safety.”
But according to the indictment, Blankenship was more than a mere bystander to the safety violations. He was known as an intense micromanager and paid particular attention to the Upper Big Branch mine. That was because it produced metallurgical coal, which sold for much more than thermal coal at that time. As a result, the mine contributed an inordinate amount of revenue to Massey’s bottom line.
The Upper Big Branch mine was cited for approximately 835 safety violations over the period referenced in the indictment – between January 2008 and April 2010. And there was pressure from the top to violate safety laws to cut costs. Apparently, Massey officials would warn underground supervisors when mine safety inspectors were on their way to survey the mine, and they instructed miners to cover up violations.
He “conspired to defraud the United States by impeding the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in carrying out its duties.” He did this by making material false and misleading statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Massey Energy was subsequently bought by Alpha Natural Resources, and in the wake of Blankenship’s indictment, Alpha was quick to highlight the fact that Blankenship had left Massey before it was acquired and that he was never an Alpha employee.
His fall from the top was swift and unexpected. Blankenship for years held significant sway over West Virginia politics, single handedly funding campaigns for favored candidates in the West Virginia legislature and court system.
Nevertheless, the coal industry, despite continuing to see mines close and miners laid off, still holds outsized influence over elected candidates. Coal played a central role in the recent mid-term elections, with both Democrats and Republicans promising to roll back federal environmental regulations that would rescue the industry.
But with environmental regulations tightening and international coal prices sinking, the ongoing coal bust is looking more and more like permanent decay.
Still, many West Virginia residents will not miss Blankenship. “It’s an important day for many, many families in the Central Appalachian coal fields,” said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented miners’ widows in lawsuits against Blankenship, according to Ken Ward Jr. of The West Virginia Gazette. “For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”
If convicted Blankenship faces a maximum sentence of up to 31 years in prison.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com