Don Blankenship Guilty of Conspiracy in Upper Big Branch Mine Blast That Killed 29 Coal Miners

A jury in Charleston, West Virginia found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiracy to violate the nation’s mine safety laws in connection with the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners.

Don Blankenship

Don Blankenship

The  jury cleared Blankenship on two counts of lying to the federal government.

In his closing remarks, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin called Blankenship “an outlaw” and said he operated “a lawless empire.”

Blankenship’s defense lawyers said the case should never have been filed and that they will appeal the conviction.

University of Maryland Law Professor Rena Steinzor, author of Why Not Jail?: Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, said that “justice was done today by a hard working jury in West Virginia that convicted Don Blankenship of conspiracy to obstruct federal mine safety rules.”

“This conspiracy was the primary cause of an enormous explosion that killed 29 men in the worst mine disaster in 40 years,” Steinzor said. “Although the jury was not presented with the question whether Blankenship was directly responsible for the explosion, it did decide that he played Russian roulette with his miners’ lives.  By underfunding efforts to comply, harassing employees to ignore safety rules so they could “dig coal” faster, and threatening managers with dismissal if they worked to solve ventilation and other problems at the mine, Blankenship made an already hazardous workplace into a horror show that made men fear for their lives every time they journeyed thousands of feet underground.”

“Defense counsel will undoubtedly make much of the jury’s decision not to convict Blankenship of lying to the government, but those two counts were relatively minor.  The first count was the heart of the case.  We can only hope that after the inevitable appeals, Don Blankenship gets the prison time he so richly deserves,” Steinzor said.

University of Michigan Law Professor David Uhlmann said that the verdict “brings justice to the families of the miners killed and injured during Don Blankenship’s lawless reign at Massey Energy.”

“Under Blankenship’s leadership, Massey repeatedly put profits before everything else, and Massey became one of the worst violators of our nation’s mine safety and environmental laws.  Blankenship’s conviction makes clear that we expect better of corporations in the United States and that even the most powerful corporate executives are accountable for their crimes.”

Public Citizen’s Rob Weissman said that “for far too long in this nation’s history, coal operators have recklessly endangered their workers’ lives, with thousands of workers dying in accidents and many hundreds of thousands more dying and suffering from black lung and associated diseases.”

“Today’s guilty verdict should send the message to coal company executives that society will no longer tolerate this trade of miners’ lives for coal and profit. Indeed, it should send a message to CEOs across the country: No more recklessly endangering workers’ lives, and you will be held criminally liable if your actions – and inaction – cost lives.”

“The prosecutors who brought this case deserve immense credit, for it is no small thing to go after a coal executive in coal country, and prosecutions of corporate executives remain far too rare.”

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