Coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, who became the face of corporate turpitude when 29 of his company's workers were killed in a 2010 mine blast, was convicted of a federal charge Thursday in a verdict that Appalachian activists said was no more than a "starting place" for justice.
Blankenship, 65, was found guilty of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and faces up to one year in prison. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin called the verdict "a landmark day for the safety of coal workers."
The former Massey Energy CEO, once described as the "poster boy for malevolent big business," was also cleared of two lesser charges of lying to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) officials about the company's safety procedures.
With this verdict, Blankenship becomes the most well-known American coal executive to be convicted of a charge that stemmed from worker deaths—although prosecutors did not ask the jury to consider whether Blankenship was explicitly guilty of killing the miners, but rather if he had "consider[ed] safety to be second to production."
Goodwin told jurors that Blankenship had operated Massey Energy as a "lawless enterprise."
He ran the company "in a way that violating mine laws was inevitable, and he knew it," Goodwin said. "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."
As journalist and historian Jeff Biggers wrote in an op-ed on Thursday, Blankenship's conviction was a "historic first step in holding mining outlaws accountable for their reckless operations."
The April 5, 2010 methane gas explosion in the Montcoal, West Virginia mine known as Upper Big Branch (UBB) left a legacy of loss and trauma for the deceased workers' families to shoulder indefinitely, Biggers wrote. "[T]his conviction may only serve as a tiny reckoning of our nation's complacency with a continual state of violations, but it could begin a new era of justice and reconciliation in the devastated coal mining communities in Appalachia and around the nation."
Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother Dean Jones died in the blast, told reporters outside the courthouse that the verdict "sends a message to all CEOs and operators. Even if Don Blankenship wasn't convicted of all of these crimes, he is guilty, my friends."
West Virginia Gazette reporter Ken Ward wrote of the proceedings:
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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 yet being ordered to keep “running coal.”
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.
Shauna Thomas of the West Virginia Metro News added:
While this case was not about the cause of the UBB Disaster or whether Blankenship was responsible for it, UBB was always in the background. Several of those testifying shed tears or showed other emotions while talking about conditions at the mine and those killed in it.
[Former Mine Safety and Health Administration ventilation expert Bill] Ross, for example, wrote in a Summer 2009 e-mail, after offering a frank assessment of Massey’s safety failures and the prospects of his recommendations for changes being followed, “I’m so thrilled about a new Massey Energy Corporation. Let’s hope that new and better things are going to happen.”
In court on Nov. 4, Ross broke down while reading that e-mail which was sent less than nine months before 29 coal miners died in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
The verdict received a quieter reaction from those on the ground in the Appalachian region where the coal industry has left a trail of exploitation and waste. As award-winning environmentalist Maria Gunnoe said, "Either way there is no justice for the men that lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Explosion, nor will there be justice for the families that lost so much more than just coal miners. The time has come that there is no other choice but to convict these obvious criminals."
Bob Kincaid, president of the Coal River Mountain Watch, added, "Don Blankenship's conviction doesn't feel like victory but in the grand scope of more than a century of the coal industry's abuse of the people of Appalachia, it may mark a stating place....My heart aches for all those who suffered and died under Blankenship's avaricious lash. The jury showed him more mercy than he has ever shown anyone in his entire existence on this planet."
"Even if he serves his one year slap-on-the-wrist, we know already that justice will not be done," Kincaid said. "His legacy of poisoning Appalachia will persist long after his name has been forgotten."