Why coal CEO found guilty of misdemeanor in miner deaths

Donald Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy Company, is the fourth convicted official involved in the 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers. 

REUTERS/Chris Tilley
Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship (C) smiles outside the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse just moments after the verdict was handed down to him in Charleston, West Virginia December 3, 2015. Blankenship was found guilty in federal court on Thursday of conspiring to violate safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 blast that killed 29 people.

For violations of safety standards that led to the death of 29 Upper Big Branch mine workers in 2010, one of the deadliest mining accidents in American history, coal executive Donald Blankenship was found guilty by a federal jury Thursday.  

Mr. Blankenship was the CEO of Massey Energy Company, an extractor that, at one point, was the fourth biggest producer of coal in the US and had thousands of safety citations.

But despite aggressive prosecution by the Justice Department, Blankenship was convicted of only one of the three charges brought against him: conspiring to violate mine safety regulations – a misdemeanor. He faces up to one year in prison and a fine of $250,000. Still, he is the most prominent executive ever to have been convicted of a charge relating to the death of workers, and the fourth top official found accountable in the UBB mining tragedy.

On April 5, 2010, a 1,000-foot long piece of mining equipment at the mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. ignited a massive explosion that tore through two and a half miles of mine. Out of 31 workers, only two survived.

After a $209 million settlement deal was struck between the company and the victims’ families, the Justice Department began criminal prosecution of mine officials.

In 2012, Hughie Elbert Stover, UBB’s former security director, was the first to be convicted. For impeding and deceiving the government investigation, he was sentenced to three years in jail.

Next was Gary May, the UBB supervisor at the time of the explosion. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison after pleading guilty to disabling a methane gas monitor, falsifying mine records, and other accounts of obstructing safety standards.

Toward the end of 2013, Massey executive David Hughart was found guilty of tipping off officials at Massey mines about safety inspections. His sentence was three and a half years.

And finally, Blankenship’s indictment came in 2014. If he hadn’t been acquitted Thursday for making false statements and deceiving regulators, The New York Times reports, the coal mogul could have been sentenced to 30 years.

But Blankenship’s team of criminal defense lawyers ultimately prevailed, arguing that the company’s safety record was overblown by the prosecution and that their client had actually requested lower-ranking executives to reduce violations and approved investments in safety.

“The citations you’re hearing about are not crimes,” William W. Taylor III, Blankenship’s top attorney, said in court Nov. 17.

“You can take all of this paper and look at it as long as you want and you will not find the word ‘willful’ in any of the citations.”

When the verdict was announced Thursday, Mr. Taylor told The Times that his team is upset about the conviction and will succeed in appealing it.

The 2010 incident isn’t the only tragedy marring Blankenship and his company’s record in coal country. According to lawyer Bruce Stanley, a staunch legal opponent of the coal giant, an estimated 50 workers have died under Blankenship’s watch between 200 and 2011.

And around the time of the UBB explosion, the people of Mingo County, W.Va., sued the company for dumping its “coal slurry” into their town’s drinking water. The class action suit was settled in 2011.

Since the enactment of the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, the annual number of mine-related fatalities and injuries has declined dramatically. Safety provisions were strengthened even further in 2006, following another major explosion in West Virginia that killed 12 men.

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