Longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship Indicted
by Ken Ward, Jr. / West Virginia Gazette
Thursday, November 13th, 2014
Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive of Massey Energy, was indicted today on charges that he violated federal mine safety laws at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause routine and willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch during a period from Jan. 1, 2008, to April 9, 2010, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said.
The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections. The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety practices prior to the explosion.
“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,” the indictment states. “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.”
The four counts charged carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment, Goodwin said in a prepared statement. Goodwin declined to comment beyond the prepared statement.
The indictment comes after a more than four-year investigation that began following the mine disaster on April 5, 2010, but expanded to examine a troubled safety record that critics have long argued put coal production and profits ahead of worker protections.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby has led an unprecedented government effort to link major safety lapses at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines up the corporate ladder to Blankenship, who was known for keeping a firm grip on every aspect of Massey’s operations during nearly two decades at the company’s helm.
Blankenship has previously denied any wrongdoing, insisted that Massey put the safety of its miners first, and promoted his theory that the Upper Big Branch explosion was fueled by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas that inundated the Raleigh County mine.
“If they put me behind bars … it will be political,” Blankenship wrote in a May 2013 article posted on a blog he has used to defend his record and attack his critics.
In a statement issued late this afternoon, Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said, “Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”
“Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety,” Taylor said. “His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated.”
Two government and two independent investigations, though, blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey Energy 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 huge coal-dust-fueled explosion.
Those investigations all generally agreed that the explosion erupted when the mine’s longwall machine shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, investigators said, ignited a pocket of methane gas. Investigators concluded that worn-out bits on the cutting shearer contributed to the explosion, while missing water sprays allowed the ignition to spread. Illegal levels of coal dust had not been cleaned up, providing fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels, investigators said.
“While violations of particular safety standards led to the conditions that caused the explosion, the unlawful policies and practices implemented by [Massey] were the root cause of the tragedy,” the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded in its report on Upper Big Branch. “The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that [Massey] promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.”
Blankenship invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from MSHA, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and an independent team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to probe the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Already, Goodwin’s investigation has produced four convictions — including plea agreements with an Upper Big Branch superintendent and a Massey unit president — and a more-than-$200-million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011, that required Alpha to fund major safety improvements and create a foundation to support mine safety and health research.
For years, Blankenship has been not only a powerful voice in the coal industry, but a power broker whose involvement in West Virginia politics could cut both ways.
At a time when a major verdict against Massey was headed for the state Supreme Court, his personal funds helped defeat then-Justice Warren McGraw’s re-election effort and his personal friendship with Blankenship likely helped cost then-Justice Spike Maynard his seat on the court. Republican operatives who helped engineer their party’s takeover of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature in this year’s election got their start working for Blankenship-funded political efforts.
Less than a year after the mine disaster, Massey announced in December 2010 that Blankenship would retire from the company at the end of the year. The following month, Alpha announced its plans to buy Massey.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.