The former Chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Company was convicted Thursday of a federal charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards, in the case of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010, in which 29 miners were killed in a coal dust explosion.
Don Blankenship ran Massey from 2000 to 2010, the year of the disaster. On the afternoon of April 5, an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, the result of a buildup of gases and coal dust. High water levels and low air flow kept carbon monoxide and methane pooling in the area where the men were working. Coal mining, by the way, is terrifying.
31 men were working inside the mine at the time of the explosion. 29 bodies were recovered from the mine over the following eight days, and one of the two men who survived was seriously injured. Rescuers frequently had to abandon recovery efforts due to the same kinds of gas levels that led to the fatal explosion.
An independent investigation commissioned by then Governor Joe Manchin found that Massey “engaged in a process of ‘normalization of deviance’ that, in the push to produce coal, made allowancesfor a faulty ventilation system, inadequate rock-dustingand poorly maintained equipment.” The report paints a picture of a company that actively disregarded mine safety standards, and then actively deceived inspectors to stay in operation.
The report also recounts a conversation one of the men killed in the explosion had with a neighbor the day before the event. 33-year-old Gary Wayne Quarles knew the situation at the mine was bad:
“Man, they got us up there mining, and we ain’t got no air. You can’t see nothing. Every day, I just thank God when I get out of that coal mine that I ain’t got to be here no more. I just don’t want to go back. When I get up in the mornings, I don’t want to put my shoes on. I don’t want to make myself go to work. I’m just scared to death to go to work because I’m just scared to death something bad is going to happen.”
Blankenship is just the most recent Massey executive to be held legally accountable for the company’s practices. David Hughart reportedly “admitted to being part of a corporate conspiracy to evade surprise mine safety inspections by giving advance warning to miners underground,” according to an NPR report, and was sentenced in 2013 to 42 months in jail. In 2012, the mine’s former safety chief “was found guilty of lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents,” and was sentenced to three years behind bars. Gary May, former superintendent, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for hindering the investigation into the disaster.
With today’s verdict, Blankenship reportedly becomes “the most prominent American coal executive ever to be convicted of a charge connected to the deaths of miners,” according to the New York Times. Prosecutors depicted him as too involved in the daily operations of his mine—and, frankly, too highly-compensated—to be unaware or otherwise powerless to manage the company’s history of breaking safety rules:
Jurors heard descriptions of Mr. Blankenship’s fortune — he was paid nearly $18 million in 2009, the last full year before the explosion at the West Virginia mine just about everyone called “U.B.B.” — and they saw documents that portrayed him as a manager with intricate knowledge of the operations of his multibillion-dollar company. They learned about his demands for production reports from Upper Big Branch every 30 minutes, even on weekends, and they heard him, on audio recordings, chastising and lecturing subordinates.
From the sound of things, Blankenship got off pretty easy:
But the verdict was, by most measures, a defeat for the Justice Department, which had pursued a prosecution that could have led to a 30-year prison term.
Sentencing is reportedly expected to take place early next year.