Friday, December 04, 2015

Former Massey Energy CEO convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy Co., "was convicted Thursday by a federal jury of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "The federal jury found Blankenship not guilty of two other charges, securities fraud and making false statements, after a landmark two-month trial that revisited the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation and closely examined the longstanding argument from Blankenship’s critics that he put coal production and corporate profits ahead of the safety of his company’s miners." (Gazette photo by F. Brian Ferguson: Don Blankenship smiling as he leaves the courthouse Thursday)

"Blankenship faces a maximum of one year in prison—compared to the 30-year maximum sentence had he been convicted on all three charges—but he also could be sentenced to pay fines of up to twice the financial gain resulting from the mine-safety conspiracy," Ward writes. Blankesnhip's attorneys said they would appeal the verdict and were confident it would be overturned.

"Blankenship, 65, had faced three felony counts in an indictment that resulted from a nearly five-year federal probe following the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch, an underground mine in Raleigh County that produced a valuable form of steel-making coal that was key to Massey’s financial success," Ward writes. "While Blankenship 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."

"During the trial, more than a dozen former Upper Big Branch miners testified about working day after day with inadequate fresh air, high levels of dust and other problems and still being ordered to keep 'running coal,'" Ward writes. "Prosecutors introduced evidence that Massey—and the Upper Big Branch Mine in particular—racked up far more serious safety and health violations than other mines operated by other major coal producers. 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. 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."

Blankenship, who was once one of the most powerful men in the coal industry, earned the nickname the "King of Coal" for nearly tripling the Massey's revenue during the decade he was in charge, Evan Osnos reports for The New Yorker. "But he was perhaps better known for building a four-story villa on a West Virginia mountaintop and for travelling around by black helicopter. He tended to his mines and to his favored politicians; he once spent millions of dollars in campaign funds to reshape the state Supreme Court, ultimately helping to oust a progressive justice and install an obscure replacement."

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