A federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia on December 3 found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations.
Blankenship was CEO of Massey when an explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia killed 29 miners. The explosion was the worst US mining disaster in the last 40 years.
Investigators blamed the explosion on Blankenship’s decision to prioritize profits over worker safety.
Blankenship was also charged with lying to investors and securities regulators about the safety conditions in his mines, but the jury found him not guilty of these charges.
“A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards,” said Cecil Roberts international president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). “The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields – that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court.”
Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine was a non-union mine, but after the explosion, UMWA got involved in supporting the victims’ families and their demand that those responsible for the explosion be held accountable.
At the trial, jurors heard testimony that Blankenship ignored safety concerns raised by subordinates while keeping meticulous track of coal production and that Blankenship weighed the cost of fines the company would receive for safety violations against the expense of fixing safety problems that might incur safety violation citations.
Witnesses also said that the company conspired to thwart safety inspections by federal and state mine safety inspectors.
Three independent investigations conducted after the explosion confirmed this testimony.
One of the investigations was initiated by West Virginia’s then Gov. Joe Manchin.
The report of the investigation’s findings is entitled, “Upper Big Branch Mine, the April 5, 2010 Explosion: A Failure of Basic Coal Mine Safety.” It identifies the causes of the explosion as a poorly maintained ventilation system that allowed dangerous levels of explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate and an ill-functioning water spray system that allowed sparks from coal digging equipment to ignite the methane and coal dust.
According to the report, the so-called safety culture at Massey mines such as Upper Big Branch was a sham. Despite the company’s sloganeering, production (and its resulting profits) always took precedence over safety.
For Massey’s miners, the results of this posturing has been deadly.
“From 2000 to 2010, no United States coal company had a worse fatality record than Massey Energy. Fifty-four workers were killed in Massey mines during that time, including the 29 who lost their lives (at the Upper Big Branch explosion),” states the report.
Two other reports, one by the UMWA and the other by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), confirm that the cause of the explosion was due to the buildup of coal dust and methane gas caused by a poorly maintained ventilation system and an ill-functioning water spray system.
They also say that, Massey’s inattention to these serious hazards was just one example of the company’s systemic disregard for basic mine safety.
While Blankenship was found guilty of actions that led to considerable loss of life, he will get off with a relatively light sentence. The maximum penalty for his crime, which is a misdemeanor, is only one year in prison.
He’ll be sentenced in March, and his attorney said that he will appeal the conviction.
Because of the skewed priorities of the US penal code, Blankenship would have faced up to 30 years in prison if had been found guilty as charged of lying to investors.
As a result, there was some disappointment with the outcome of the verdict.
But Roberts tried to put a positive spin on the verdict.
“A message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk,” said Roberts. “I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.”