EHS OutLoud Blog

Surprised and Delighted: The Indictment of Don Blankenship

Coal miner boots and lunch pail sit on the stage of the New Life Assembly church during a Sunday service dedicated to the memory of the coal miners that died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine. (Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images)

As the saying goes: The fish rots from the head. Prosecutors working on the cases of former Massey Energy employees who were indicted on various criminal charges following the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine always said they wanted the big fish: former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship.

Prosecutors believed – and testimony during the trials supported their beliefs – that Blankenship was well aware that there were two sets of books kept at the UBB: one for “real” and one for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). They also believed that Blankenship was aware that mine supervisors were notified in advance of MSHA inspections, so that they could “clean up” the mine and make everything look good for the inspectors. But believing something to be true and proving it is not the same thing and years passed... Until Nov. 13, when a federal grand jury announced several indictments against Blankenship.

I personally believed that Blankenship knew about the criminal coverups in Massey Energy mines and possibly condoned it. Let’s face it: if he knew about it and did nothing or worse – encouraged his mine operators to lie to federal inspectors and ignore safety violations and hazards – then he was guilty of criminal activity. If he didn’t know about it – when it was so blatant and ongoing – then he was guilty of a level of neglect of his duties as CEO that it reached criminal proportions.

True to their word, prosecutors sought indictments against Blankenship and got them; he was indicted on three felony counts and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy, fraud and making false statements.

Blankenship’s attorney is saying pretty much what you’d expect: Blankenship is innocent, a “tireless advocate for mine safety” who is being unfairly targeted by prosecutors.

On Labor Day 2009, Blankenship told people at an anti-union rally: “Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.”

Ironic speech, coming as it does from a man who was the CEO of a company that owned the Upper Big Branch coal mine where 29 men lost their lives in the worst mining disaster in 40 years. Some of the facts that must have escaped Blankenship when he made that speech:

  • The Upper Big Branch coal mine received 53 citations from MSHA in March 2010 – a month before it blew up – many related to ventilation and build up of methane.
  • In 2009, the year Blankenship boasted about knowing more about mine safety than state or federal mine regulators, the Upper Big Branch coal mine received over 500 citations for various violations and was issued nearly $900,000 in penalties.
  • From 2005 to 2010, the Upper Big Branch coal mine received a total of 1,342 MSHA safety violations, with a proposed $1.89 million in fines.

When I heard that Blankenship had been indicted, I did a little happy dance. If convicted on all four counts, he faces as much as 31 years in prison. That’s a long time, although much shorter than the amount of time left in the lives cut short on April 5, 2010.

When I’m writing a news article, I try to be as unbiased as possible. I try to get statements from all sides and include “just the facts.” The good thing about blog posts is that I can say what I feel.

I hope Don Blankenship spends the rest of his life in prison.

TAGS: Safety
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