Former Massey Energy’s CEO Don Blankenship Guilty Verdict Is Historic

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has just been found guilty by a federal jury in West Virginia on one criminal charge of conspiracy to willfully violate mandatory federal mine safety standards. Blankenship, 65, faced three felony counts in an indictment that resulted from a nearly five-year federal probe following the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. While he was not charged with causing the disaster, the accusations focused on rampant violations of basic safety standards – mine ventilation, roof support and dust control – known for decades to be effective in preventing mine explosions.

The misdemeanor charge carries up to one year in prison. Jurors did not find Blankenship guilty of a more serious conspiracy charge that could have netted up to 30 years in prison. He was acquitted of making false statements and securities fraud.

Prosecutors introduced evidence that Massey – and the Upper Big Branch Mine in particular – embraced safety crimes as a business strategy, putting profits before its workers. Far more serious safety and health violations were “racked up” than at other mines operated by other major coal producers.  And the miners paid the price.

The defendant ran Massey in a way that violating mine laws was inevitable, and he knew it,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told jurors during closing arguments on Nov. 17. “He knew that you simply could not mine the amount of coal he demanded with the limited amount of people he was willing to devote and the resources that he was willing to devote without breaking the law. And he kept right on doing it.

Source:  Blankenship Guilty of Conspiracy, Not Guilty on Other Two Counts
Ken Ward Jr., Staff Writer, News Gazette

Prosecutors alleged that these violations could easily have been prevented, but Blankenship refused to hire additional miners to do things like spread adequate amounts of crushed limestone or “rock dust” to dilute explosive coal dust generated by mining. According to Ken Ward Jr., staff writer for the Charleston News Gazette, the government also noted specific examples where Blankenship refused budget requests for a new ventilation shaft and rock-dusting machine for the Upper Big Branch Mine.


Upper Big Branch Mine memorial. Photo credit:

Why this Verdict Matters

While the light sentence is disappointing, this verdict marks the first time that that a major coal kingpin has been convicted for crimes arising from worker deaths in the mining industry, and for that reason it is historic.

Read journalist Jeff Biggers’ article “Reckoning in Appalachia: Why Coal Mining Outlaw Don Blankenship’s Conviction Matters” for some good insights regarding today’s verdict, which he says just might be the start of a new era of justice and reconciliation for the devastated coal mining communities across the nation. This includes Appalachia and also Illinois, where coal production is on the rise.  Let’s hope he is right.

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