Five years after deadly mine blast, coal executive to face jury

Don Blankenship is accused of skirting safety regulations and ignoring broken safety protocols.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Former Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety, May 20, 2010. Mr. Blankenship, who goes on trial Thursday, in Charleston, W. Va., faces up to three decades in prison if convicted over how he ran the Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners.

It was the worst US mining disaster in four decades, and now, five years later, the former coal company executive charged with ignoring hundreds of safety breaches and covering up safety violations is facing trial. 

Don Blankenship heads to a West Virginia courtroom on Thursday facing three felony charges for his role in a 2010 mine explosion that left no survivors. The blast occurred 1,000 feet below ground, killing 29 people at the Upper Big Branch Mine, which lies about 40 miles south of Charleston. 

Mr. Blankenship, the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. who led the company from 2000 until shortly after the disaster in 2010, could face a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison if found guilty on all counts. 

After Blankenship's lawyers complained he could not get a fair trial in Beckly, Va., Judge Irene Berger moved the trial to Charleston, where more than 100 people have been called for jury selection in its US District Court. Blankenship pleaded not guilty in 2014 and is free on a $5 million cash bond. His lawyers repeatedly sought a delay in the trial.

For families who lost loved ones in the explosion, the trial was a long time coming. Betty Harrah, whose brother Steven Harrah died in the explosion, told the Associated Press that her family had thought the trial was something "we never thought would happen."

Blankenship is accused of conspiring to falsify dust samples and violating federal securities laws by lying about Massey's safety practices. A sweeping gag order from Judge Berger was lifted in March by a federal appeals court, unsealing filings and allowing participants to discuss the case.

The explosion at Upper Big Branch caused the highest death toll since 91 miners were killed in a 1972 fire at an Idaho silver mine. If convicted, the case would set a new precedent in the US justice system for accountability in the mining industry that would reach to the very top of the corporate ladder.

“There have long been bad choices in the coal mining business, but the fall guys have always been the lower echelon employees,” says Jim Lees, a former prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, based in Charleston, W.V., during an interview following Blankenship's 2014 indictment. “I don’t recall prosecutors ever making their way to the boardroom.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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