On December 3, 2015 after a six-week trial and 10 days of jury deliberations, the King of Coal was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. Don Blankenship, who rose in the ranks to CEO of Massey Energy, could serve up to a year for the misdemeanor conviction. A YouTube video of local news discussing the charges, his conviction and the plan to appeal can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuiym_kvuXc
That misdemeanor charge and felony charges involving lying to authorities and securities fraud all stem from a 2010 underground mine explosion killing 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine (UBB) in Montcoal, West Virginia.
By the date of the explosion, Blankenship had been the CEO for approximately 10 years and had become notable for several comments and practices: he remarked that as brutal and unrewarding as the coal life can be, it is all that his people should hope for; he complained that he was not richer, despite all his cost-cutting; much of the cost-cutting came from ignoring safety regulations and deliberately deceiving inspectors because it was cheaper to pay fines if caught than it was to pay the costs of preventing safety violations.
Blankenship retired in the winter after the explosion and in 2014, four years after the explosion, he was indicted for the misdemeanor and two felonies. Blankenship remained free on $5 million bail until trial. At trial, Blankenship’s defense team asserted that the explosion was an Act of God; however, four different investigations concluded that cutting equipment in the mine had not been properly maintained, sparked and ignited coal dust and methane, causing the deadly explosion.
Some are elated by the conviction because Blankenship is “the most prominent American coal executive ever to be convicted of a charge connected to the deaths of miners.” However, others are disappointed by the mere misdemeanor conviction and the light punishment: the possible year sentence would amount to 12.6 days per death from the mine explosion.
Donald Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison in April 2016. The prison term, the maximum allowed by law, came in Federal District Court here six years and one day after an explosion ripped through Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, killing the 29 men.
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