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Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty

The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

“Kingpin” of coal conspiracy faces a maximum of just one year in prison

After a six-week-long trial that included 27 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, followed by a week and a half of dramatic deliberations, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Blankenship could face up to one year in prison.

Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, a misdemeanor, and cover up violations by giving workers advance notice of inspections. He was also charged with lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to investors in an effort to stop plummeting stock prices following the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners.

He was found not guilty of the charges related to securities fraud.

The prosecution was led by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. If you haven’t been following the trial, Ruby summarized the government’s case against Blankenship in six sentences.

“If you violate the laws and gamble with the lives of your workers, you will be held accountable,” Goodwin said at a press conference after the verdict was announced.

Prosecutors argued that Blankenship was the “kingpin” of a vast conspiracy operated by “yes men” that he oversaw using intimidation, fear and propaganda.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts called the verdict “a measure of justice.”

“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,” Roberts said in a statement.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which works to improve safety conditions for coal miners, hopes the conviction will bring industry-wide changes.

“The verdict should broadcast to coal industry management that business as usual must change — if the resurgence of black lung and horror of disasters such as Upper Big Branch does not wake them up, then perhaps criminal convictions will,” the group stated.

Blankenship was not specifically charged in the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, W.Va. But the investigation into the disaster resulted in four convictions that led up the Massey corporate chain — and eventually to Blankenship’s indictment.

As the prosecution repeatedly pointed out during the trial and in its closing arguments, however, hundreds of serious and preventable safety violations occurred at Upper Big Branch, including “the most unwarrantable failure orders of almost any coal mine in America.”

Through emails, memos and recorded phone calls, the prosecution also argued that Blankenship knew that the Upper Big Branch operation was systemically violating mine safety laws.

A 2011 report commissioned by West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called the story of Upper Big Branch “a cautionary tale of hubris” and concluded that responsibility for the explosion lies with Massey management.

Judy Jones Peterson, the sister of Upper Big Branch victim Dean Jones, has been particularly visible throughout the trial. Today Peterson told reporters that the verdict “sends a message to all CEOs and operators.”

“Even if Don Blankenship wasn’t convicted of all of these crimes, he is guilty, my friends,” she added.

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Brian is an environmental news junkie concerned with our lagging energy policy and revealing the true cost of coal on our health, the environment and the climate. He is Appalachian Voices' Director of Strategic Advancement.


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