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'Ruthless' Coal Baron Don Blankenship Gets Maximum Sentence for 2010 Blast

Rights group says sentencing should usher in 'new day' of accountability for executives

Don Blankenship was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in the blast that killed 29 workers. (Screenshot)

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced notorious coal baron Don Blankenship to one year in prison, another year of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000—the maximum sentence Blankenship faced—for his role in a 2010 West Virginia coal mine blast that killed 29 workers.

The sentence comes six years and one day after the explosion at Upper Big Branch. Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, was convicted in December of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws.

The sentence is "a long time coming," Dr. Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother Dean Jones died in the accident, said ahead of the hearing in Charleston.

"We've been waiting for this day," she said.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger found that Blankenship abused his position of trust as Massey CEO and organized criminal activity with five or more participants, as Ken Ward wrote for the Charleston Gazette.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the court that Blankenship had prioritized money over safety and endangered the lives of his workers. Ruby had previously requested the maximum sentence in the case, writing in an 11-page court briefing last week, "What punishment can suffice for wrongdoing so monstrous?"

"If ever a case cried out for the maximum sentence, this is it," Ruby said Wednesday. "Breaking mine safety laws kills people. Breaking mine safety laws kills coal miners. The defendant placed human lives in jeopardy."

Blankenship's trial has been closely monitored by rights groups who see him as the face of corporate malice. Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Wednesday that the sentence—albeit light—was "the right thing to do."

"With heavy hearts, coal miners and their families today can celebrate a modicum of justice," Weissman said. "For decades, coal company executives have ruthlessly endangered the lives of coal miners, disregarding the law and sure they could escape, at worst, with slap-on-the-wrist penalties."

"Hopefully today's sentence signals a new day, when executives can and will be held accountable and put in jail for their crimes," Weissman said.

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