After a two-month trial in U.S. District Court in Charleston, W.Va., former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy, one of three criminal counts against him. A jury found that Blankenship, from about Jan. 1, 2008 through about April 9, 2010, 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, W. Va.
The jury found Blankenship not guilty of two felony charges: lying to investigators and of securities fraud.
“While I am pleased that there is some measure of justice for the miners and their families at Upper Big Branch mine – and commend the U.S. Attorney and his team for their diligent efforts – it is clear that the sanctions available under current law are weak,” commented Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D, Va.), raking member of the House Committee on Education and Workforce.
“I am troubled that criminal behavior involving a conspiracy to commit willful violations of mandatory mine safety and health standards can only result in a mere misdemeanor penalty that cannot exceed one year in prison even when a mine operator recklessly exposes a miner to significant risk of serious injury, serious illness or death.”
Scott went on to call the misdemeanor sanction a “woefully insufficient deterrent for criminal conduct for an operator who repeatedly puts production ahead of safety requirements. And, it is especially troubling, given that this mine operator had other mine operations that had also been subject to criminal misdemeanor penalties involving the preventable death of miners. This supports the inference that the existing misdemeanor penalties are insufficient to deter this degree of criminal conduct.”
A federal grand jury indictment issued last year included felony and misdemeanor charges alleges, one of which was that 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 in April 2010 that killed 29 miners.
When Blankenship was charged on Nov. 13, 2014, his attorney, William W. Taylor III, declared that 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.”
When Blankenship’s conviction was announced, Jessica Martinez, acting executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, commented, “Don Blankenship repeatedly violated our nation’s mine safety laws, and his conviction today will send a message to other CEOs: It’s not acceptable to cut corners and put workers’ lives at risk.”
Adding that the verdict comes too late for the 29 miners who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch in 2010, Martinez added, “This preventable tragedy cannot be separated from the culture of indifference towards safety created by Blankenship and other senior Massey Energy executives. We stand with victims, family members and safety activists. Together, we’ll continue our efforts to empower workers and hold CEOs accountable, so that today’s verdict makes a real difference in U.S. workplaces.”
When sentenced, Blankenship could face a year in prison.
(This article has been updated with new information.)