Don Blankenship, the former CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, faces up to 31 years in prison after a federal grand jury indicted him Thursday on four criminal charges related to the worst coal mine disaster in decades.
Twenty-nine workers were killed in an explosion at the non-union Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine near Montcoal, West Virginia in April 2010.
A 2011 investigation by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found the disaster was "the result of a series basic safety violations [...] and were entirely preventable." It continues:
The tragedy at UBB began with a methane ignition that transitioned into a small methane explosion that then set off a massive coal dust explosion. If basic safety measures had been in place that prevented any of these three events, there would have been no loss of life at UBB.
The Justice Department stated Thursday: "The indictment charges Blankenship with conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and securities fraud."
From January 1, 2008, through about April 9, 2010, the Justice Department continues, the then-CEO "conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards" at the mine, and also conspired to cover up safety violations from federal inspectors.
After the deadly 2010 explosion, the Justice Department continues, Blankenship gave false statements and made misleading omissions to the SEC.
"Blankenship knew that [Upper Big Branch] was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations," the Washington Post quotes the indictment as reading. "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."
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"The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched."
—Cecil E. Roberts, United Mine Workers of AmericaIn the wake of the disaster, Amy Goodman described Blankenship a "poster boy for malevolent big business trampling on communities, the environment and workers’ rights."
United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts issued a statement commending the "strong message" the indictment sends and blasting Blankenship's disregard for safety.
"The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched. No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time. No other company compared with Massey’s record of health and safety violations during that time," Roberts stated.
When the April disaster occurred, Roberts continued, "all Americans learned what we in the coalfields already knew: For coal miners, working for Massey meant putting your life and your limbs at risk. Indeed, far too many suffered just that fate."
Gary Quarles, who lost his son in the explosion, told local ABC affiliate WCHS, "I will never be able to get over my son being killed—never."
Blankenship's attorney, William W. Taylor, III, said that his client "has been a tireless advocate for mine safety" and that the indictment was the result of his "outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats."
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This video from 2010 originally produced for the Charleston Gazette by Douglas Imbrogno offers a memorial to the workers who died at the UBB disaster: