The April 5, 2010, West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers was one of the worst U.S. mine disasters in decades.
The explosion occurred at the Upper Big Branch South Mine — operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. It was ignited by an unknown source with high methane levels being a contributing factor. Investigators faulted Massey Energy for failure to properly maintain its ventilation systems, which allowed methane levels to increase to dangerous amounts.
In 2013, David Hugart, who was president of a Massey Energy subsidiary, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts before a federal judge in Beckley, West Virginia, and identified his former boss, Massey CEO Don Blankenship, as part of an effort to cover up safety violations at the mine.
Massey was the fourth-largest coal producer in the U.S. and the largest mine operator in Appalachia at the time of the explosion. But, it had racked up an extensive list of violations before the disaster happened, and a 2011 report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found that Massey had a history of “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to evade safety regulations.
The company kept two set of books to mislead miners and inspectors, tipped off crews before surprise inspections and intimidated workers to prevent them from reporting violations, the report found.
Blankenship was indicted in November 2014, after Hugart pointed the finger at him. He was indicted on four charges: conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and securities fraud.
In December 2015, Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to willfully violate mine health and safety standards. He was acquitted on two other felony charges.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, Booth Goodwin told reporters, “This is a landmark day for the safety of coal miners. Really it’s a landmark day for all working men and women. The CEO and chairman of one of America’s largest coal companies now stands convicted of willful violations of the laws that are designed to keep coal miners safe. I hope the verdict will make a difference throughout the country.”
Statement From the United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts:
“A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields – that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court.
This decision will not bring back the 52 people killed on Massey Energy property during Blankenship’s reign as the head of that company, including the 29 killed at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Their families still must live without their loved ones, holding their grief in their hearts the rest of their lives. But a message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk. I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.”
Blankenship is expected to be sentenced in March and could face up to a year in federal prison. ■