'King of coal' given one year in prison for fatal mine explosion

Former Massey Energy chief executive officer Don Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in West Virginia's 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Former Massey Energy Company chief executive officer Don Blankenship testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on May, 20 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety.

Six years and one day after 29 miners were killed in an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., former chief executive officer Don Blankenship was fined $250,000 and sentenced to a year in prison, and one in supervised probation, for his role in the deadly explosion.

Mr. Blankenship was convicted in December of conspiring to violate safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, one of about 40 he owned during his tenure as leader of the company from 2000 to 2010. US District Judge Irene Berger gave Blankenship the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor, satisfying community members and prosecutors who wanted a message sent to other coal executives regarding the importance of mine safety. 

"No sentence is severe enough and no amount of time in jail will heal the hearts of the families who have been forever devastated, and I pray that this sentence brings them some closure," Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, who was the state's governor at the time of the explosion, told Reuters. 

Blankenship, who plans to appeal the ruling, was not held directly responsible. However, the explosion could have been prevented if basic safety practices were in place, according to the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel's report released in 2011.

Under Blankenship's leadership, the Massey mine didn't meet federal and state safety standards for rock dust, which is applied to stabilize the highly explosive coal dust. Only 65 dustings were recorded in the month before the disaster, although 561 were requested, according to the report.  

"Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm," says the report, which was released in 2011. Because of such oversights, a small fire became a huge explosion, racing through more than two and a half miles of the mine.  

While miners' families are applauding Judge Berger's ruling, stricter attention to safety regulations feels like yet another burden to mining companies already struggling amid recent regulations on the industry. 

"A number of factors have conspired to send the US coal industry into perhaps the worst downturn in its history – and unlike the past, this one may have some permanence," the Monitor’s Henry Gass wrote in November:

Cheap natural gas and an increasingly affordable renewable energy market have chipped away at coal's once monolithic market share, and a raft of new and state federal regulations cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions has made coal increasingly expensive to mine and burn. Four major US coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past two years.

In 2013, Gary May, the Upper Big Branch mine's superintendent at the time of the explosion, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for conspiring to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration's enforcement efforts. Later that year, former Massey executive David Hughart was sentenced to 42 months in jail and three years' supervised release for violating mine safety laws.  

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