The former CEO of what once was the fourth largest coal producer in the U.S. has been indicted in connection with the death of 29 miners in an explosion at a West Virginia mine in April 2010.
A four-count indictment against Donald L. Blankenship accuses him of conspiring to violate mandatory mine safety and health law and to defraud the government by impeding MSHA inspections between January 2008 and April 2010. The 43-page indictment also accuses him of making materially false and misleading statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public. The three felonies and one misdemeanor carry a maximum combined imprisonment of 31 years. Blankenship ran Massey Energy Co. and was chairman of its board before retiring in late 2010. Massey, which since has been sold, owned the Upper Big Branch-South (UBB) Mine in Raleigh County, site of the worst U.S. underground coal mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Blankenship has pleaded not guilty to the charges. At a preliminary hearing, bond was set at $5 million with January 26 designated as the trial date.
MSHA’s investigation blamed the tragedy on a pattern by Massey of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a massive explosion fueled by coal dust.
The indictment characterizes Blankenship as a hands-on CEO who micromanaged daily operations at his mines, including UBB, and who intimidated mine managers into ignoring safety by focusing exclusively on production to maximize profits.
“Specifically, he chose to maximize profits by depriving UBB of the miners and non-coal-production time that it needed to comply with mandatory federal mine safety standards, concluding that it was less expensive to routinely pay fines for violating such standards than to allocate the necessary funds to following them,” the indictment alleges.
Blankenship’s lawyer said Blankenship denies any wrongdoing and would fight the charges. He also alleged the government targeted Blankenship because of his “outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats.”
Since his retirement, Blankenship has set up a website and produced a film in which he alleged the UBB accident was caused by a sudden, unforeseen influx of natural gas into the mine. He also openly criticized MSHA for its enforcement practices and suggested those practices contributed to ventilation problems at UBB.
Three other Massey officials have been convicted in the ongoing investigation into the blast. David Hughart, a former president of another Massey coal subsidiary, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and received a 3½ year prison sentence. He testified that Blankenship ordered advance warnings of impending inspections be transmitted underground to give workers time to correct safety violations.
Former UBB superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison on charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine, including disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records. Former Massey security chief Hughie Elbert Stover received a three-year sentence for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents.