Carolyn Kaster / AP

In rare criminal case, coal baron faces trial

Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, allegedly operated an unsafe West Virginia coal mine where 29 men died

It seemed less and less certain that Don Blankenship, one of the richest and most powerful men in Appalachia, would ever be brought to trial. He’d been indicted by the U.S. attorney in West Virginia last November and released on a $5 million bond, but the date of his criminal trial kept getting postponed. His lawyers filed motion after motion to change the date and relocate the case — to a place far from where 29 of Blankenship's employees died in a coal mine explosion in 2010.

But jury selection was finally set to begin Thursday in United States v. Blankenship, a federal criminal case against the former CEO of Massey Energy Co., once a $2.6 billion corporation. Prosecutors charge that Blankenship lied to financial regulators and conspired to violate safety regulations before Apr. 5, 2010, when a massive blast in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia killed 29 men ranging in age from 20 to 61. It was the worst such disaster in nearly half a century.

The trial before District Judge Irene C. Berger in Charleston is unusual in many ways: Worker deaths rarely lead to criminal prosecutions; the coal industry commands reverence in West Virginia; and Blankenship — who now faces up to 30 years in prison — seemed to many to be an untouchable baron.

“The trial is truly historic. It’s the first time someone that far up the corporate ladder has ever been held accountable,” said Rick Wilson, a project director at the nonprofit social justice advocacy group American Friends Service Committee in West Virginia.

Despite his high rank at Massey, Blankenship reportedly micro-managed his operations. The indictment alleges, for instance, that he personally approved expenses as small as $750 and arranged the placement of equipment in individual mines. As early as 2008, he received daily reports indicating that the Upper Big Branch group of mines was among the worst in the country in terms of safety [PDF], prosecutors say. Blankenship’s attorneys refused to be interviewed for this article.

A post-blast investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a division of the federal Department of Labor, concluded that Massey managers intimidated miners, subverted surprise inspections and maintained false records, promoting “a workplace culture that valued production over safety.”

The MSHA fined the company (by then part of Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which recently declared bankruptcy) a record $10.8 million and settled out of court for an additional $210 million in remedial safety measures and payments to victims’ families. (Family members did not respond to requests for comment on the case.)

The irony is, even as [Blankenship] goes to trial, politically, he’s triumphed. Everything he dreamed of is happening politically.

Rick Wilson

American Friends Service Committee, West Virginia

But according to United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a union of approximately 17,000 active and 73,000 retired coal miners in the U.S., MSHA’s closed-door investigation was flawed and the agency failed to do its job before the Upper Big Branch disaster. The indictment alleges that the mine was cited 835 times for violations of mine safety and health rules between 2008 and April 2010, yet no major action was taken until after the deaths.

“It takes three things to make a mine safe: One is an operator willing to follow the law, which wasn’t the case with Blankenship; a government willing to enforce the law, which for many years before the explosion wasn’t the case; and a workforce empowered to speak up, which wasn’t the case at Massey mines,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for the UMWA. Smith’s union did not officially represent any Upper Big Branch miners: Massey Energy had de-unionized most of its operations starting in the 1980s by firing pro-UMWA workers.

Blankenship and “his ex-lieutenants” from Massey Coal transformed more than individual workplaces, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported this week. They reportedly contributed millions of dollars to elect Republican politicians and judges and to lobby for a pro-business agenda: lower taxes, looser industrial and environmental regulations, restricted union activity and limits on citizens’ right to sue. Last year, the West Virginia legislature became majority-Republican for the first time since the 1930s. 

“The irony is, even as [Blankenship] goes to trial, politically, he’s triumphed. Everything he dreamed of is happening politically,” said Wilson of the AFSC. Yet the state’s conservative turn has done nothing to change the declining coal market. West Virginia lost an estimated 4,000 mining jobs in 2014, and more cuts are expected this year — a significant hit to a state with below-average household income and above-average poverty rates.   

“There’s terrible hardship, but a lot of it is driven by the market, the fact that the easiest-to-get-to coal has already been gotten to and the rise of natural gas,” Wilson said. “The coal industry and Blankenship in particular created a narrative about the war on coal and blamed everything that’s happened to the coal industry on Obama and the EPA. It was a very successful political strategy."

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