Top executive indicted in Upper Big Branch mine disaster

| December 5, 2014

On April 5, 2010, 29 workers in the Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, West Virginia died in a methane gas explosion, fed by illegally high levels of highly flammable coal dust. For the first time in the state’s history, a top executive – who has been called the “dark lord of coal country” – has been indicted for the safety violations that resulted in the tragedy.

Last month Donald L. Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, which owned the mine, was charged with violating federal mine safety regulations, conspiring to impede investigators and committing securities fraud. He faces up to 31 years behind bars.

According to the New York Times, despite West Virginia’s long history of mine disasters, the economic impact of the industry has historically given mine owners like Massey – the largest coal producer in Appalachia – an advantage in the state’s courts. Blankenship was able to overturn a 2002 fraud ruling against him that awarded $50 million to several small mining companies. In 2004 Blankenship appealed the decision and contributed $3 million in campaign funds to help land a like-minded justice on the state’s Supreme Court. In addition, one of the three justices responsible for reversing the ruling was spotted vacationing with Blankenship on the French Riviera. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, stepped in and reversed the state’s decision in 2009, noting that elected judges should recuse themselves when there are obvious conflicts of interest.

The investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion put the blame squarely on Massey Energy. A May 2011 report by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel stated that “ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.”

In the 28 months before the disaster, Massey was cited for violations 835 times, and Upper Big Branch was rated one of the most dangerous mines in the country in 2008, according to the Washington Post.

According to the federal grand jury’s indictment of Blankenship, he knowingly disregarded – and even intentionally violated – safety regulations. In the year before the explosion, he ignored a total of 249 reports detailing safety violations at the mine, yet demanded he receive mine production updates every 30 minutes – even when he was away from the office. In memos, Blankenship, now retired, ordered management to redirect workers’ time from safety-related duties – like sweeping up coal dust, strengthening roofs and installing ventilation systems – to coal production. In addition, the indictment charges that Blankenship threatened managers who expressed safety concerns, actively conspired to hide violations from inspectors and lied on securities filings.

Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing that contributed to the disaster – the deadliest in the nation since 1970. His lawyer called him a “tireless advocate for mine safety,” and argued that the indictment was a result of “his outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats.”

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