Dec 04, 2015 2:23 AM GMT
Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Gazette-MailFormer Massey Energy Co. chief executive Don Blankenship, once one of the most powerful men in the region’s coal industry, was convicted Thursday by a federal jury of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion.
The federal jury found Blankenship not guilty of two other charges, securities fraud and making false statements, after a landmark trial that lasted more than two months revisited the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation and closely examined the longstanding argument from Blankenship’s critics that he put coal production and corporate profits ahead of the safety of his company’s miners.
Blankenship faces a maximum of one year in prison — compared to the 30-year maximum sentence had he been convicted on all three charges — but he also could be sentenced to pay fines of up to twice the financial gain resulting from the mine-safety conspiracy.
“The jury’s verdict sends a clear and powerful message,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. “It doesn’t matter how rich you are, or how powerful you are — if you gamble with the safety of the people who work for you, you will be held accountable.”
Blankenship, who once wrote on his blog that, “If they put me behind bars . . . it will be political,” declined comment as he left the courtroom. His legal team vowed a vigorous appeal...
Prosecutors introduced evidence that Massey — and the Upper Big Branch Mine in particular — racked up far more serious safety and health violations than other mines operated by other major coal producers. Prosecutors alleged that these violations could easily have been prevented, but Blankenship refused to hire additional miners to do things like spread adequate amounts of crushed limestone, or “rock dust,” to dilute explosive coal dust generated by mining. The government also noted specific examples where Blankenship refused budget requests for a new ventilation shaft and rock-dusting machine for the Upper Big Branch Mine.
“There will certainly be an appeal, but no matter what happens now, the evidence in this case revealed the repugnant arrogance that underlay Massey management’s claims that it always strove to comply with mine safety laws at all times,” said longtime West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, who served on an independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. “A trial is a search for the truth, and coalfield communities now know the truth — profits, not miners’ lives, was Massey’s overarching goal.”