By Elizabeth E. Payne
Editor’s Note: The print version of this article was published on Nov. 30, before the jury had submitted its verdict. The online version has been updated to reflect the outcome of the court case.
On Dec. 3, Donald L. Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Co., was convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards, a misdemeanor. But he was found not guilty of two felony charges concerning securities fraud and making false statements, charges that could have carried up to 30 years in prison had he been convicted.
Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 on charges related to the fatal explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He was charged with “[conspiracy] to commit and cause routine violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards at [the mine],” as well as impeding federal mine safety standards and making false and misleading statements after the accident.
Blankenship ran Massey Energy for nearly two decades. When he resigned in December 2010, the company was mining approximately 40 million tons of coal each year from its mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. But critics and federal prosecutors allege that such productivity came at the expense of miner safety.
Witnesses for the prosecution testified to a pattern of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine and a belief that this focus on profits over safety stemmed from Blankenship’s heavy-handed leadership style, but none testified that they had been ordered to break the law. Lawyers representing Blankenship did not call any witnesses.
While Blankenship is the highest-ranking coal executive to be indicted for safety violations in Appalachia, there is a pattern of non-compliance and lack of enforcement regarding these regulations. For example, in October Murray Energy Corp. was cited for violations by the U.S. Department of Labor stating that the company tried to intimidate miners who anonymously submitted safety complaints. And in an investigation last year, NPR found that mining company owners had accrued nearly $70 million in unpaid fines for violations at their mines, but that this delinquency had yielded no consequences for the owners.