In April 2010, an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., killing 29 miners. The explosion uncovered a history of safety violations and cover-ups, and led to arrests, indictments and trials for several employees of Massey Energy, many of who pointed the finger at former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship. Now, it’s his turn to have a day in court.
A federal grand jury indictment of Blankenship alleges that from about Jan.1, 2008, through about April 9, 2010, Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The indictment alleges that during this same period of time, Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties at Upper Big Branch by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed. According to an investigation by MSHA, these safety violations contributed to the fatal explosion.
According to his attorney, William W. Taylor III, Blankenship “is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”
Taylor went on to call Blankenship “a tireless advocate for mine safety,” adding that his “outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated.”
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who announced the indictment on Nov. 13, declined to comment beyond what was included in the indictment, which charged Blankenship with conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and securities fraud.
The indictment further alleges that after a major, fatal explosion occurred at Upper Big Branch on April 5, 2010, Blankenship made and caused to be made false statements and representations to the SEC concerning Massey Energy’s safety practices prior to the explosion. Additionally, the indictment alleges that, after this explosion, Blankenship made and caused to be made materially false statements and representations, as well as materially misleading omissions, in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock.
According to the indictment, “Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
The four counts – three felonies and one misdemeanor - carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment.
Other Massey Employees Blamed Blankenship
David Hughart, a former Massey Energy official, was sentenced Sept. 10, 2013 to 42 months in jail after pleading guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspiracy to violate mine health and safety laws.
Hughart is one of several Massey Energy employees who were sentenced to prison for violating federal mining safety and health standards and for warning mine operators when MSHA inspections were going to occur.
Hughart did not work at Upper Big Branch, and his plea deal involved crimes he has admitted committing between 2000 and 2010 at Massey's White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two mid-level foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.
Hughart is the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group and the highest-ranking official to be convicted in the ongoing federal investigation. He admitted that he and others at Massey conspired to violate health and safety laws and to conceal those violations by warning mining operations when MSHA inspectors were arriving to conduct mine inspections. Hughart cooperated with prosecutors as part of a plea deal and implicated Blankenship in the conspiracy to impede MSHA inspections and investigations and violate federal mine safety and health regulations.
Blankenship denied the claims, saying Hughart was fired with cause from Massey for drug use and theft from the company. In fact, Hughart was arrested on Aug. 30 on charges of possession of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication without a valid prescription.