Friday, November 14, 2014

Coal executive indicted on mine-safety charges

Don Blankenship
"Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of the old Massey Energy company, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners," reports The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. A federal grand jury "charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules—meant to prevent deadly mine blasts—during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation."

The indictment "also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections," Ward writes. The probe into the explosion has already led to four convictions. The maximum penalty for the three felonies and one misdemeanor is 31 years of imprisonment. Massey is now defunct, but its successor, Alpha Natural Resources, agreed to pay $10.8 million for the explosion.

The indictment states: "Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws and make more money.”

UPDATE, Nov. 17: The indictment doesn't actually charge Blankenship with causing the disaster, Ward notes, offering "a few things that readers may have overlooked and are worth knowing" about the case. Also, the judge has essentially sealed the record.

"The indictment alleged that the mine’s own regular safety examinations revealed 'near-constant' violations of dust-control rules that were seldom corrected by the company," Ward writes. "Blankenship pressured Upper Big Branch management to violate safety standards in favor of maximizing production and profits, the indictment alleges."

"One mine manager received a handwritten note from Blankenship in March 2009 'chastising him' for 'insufficient attention to cost-cutting,' telling the manager, 'You have a kid to feed. Do your job,' the indictment alleged," Ward writes. "That same mine manager at Upper Big Branch was told, when he wasn’t producing as much coal as Blankenship demanded, 'I could Khrushchev you. Do you understand?'"

"The indictment alleges that, after the Upper Big Branch explosion, with Massey stock prices—and thus Blankenship’s personal worth—dropping," Blankenship made false claims to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey's safety measures before the explosion, Ward writes. "According to the indictment, Blankenship directed the drafting of an SEC filing and a press release that defended Massey’s safety efforts."

"The statement said that Massey officials 'do not condone any violation' of safety rules and 'strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all time,'" Ward writes "The indictment charges that at the time those statements were issued, Blankenship knew that they were 'materially false, fraudulent, fictitious and misleading' and that the statements 'would act as a fraud and a deceit upon purchasers' of Massey stock." (Read more)

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