Don Blankenship, Coal Country's 'Dark Lord,' Indicted

Four years after a deadly explosion in one of his mines, longtime energy CEO is facing the music

Don Blankenship at a 2010 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on efforts to prevent mine disasters. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

When things go dramatically wrong in corporate America – the financial crisis of 2008, the BP oil spill in 2010 – punishment seldom manages to find its way to the people at the highest levels of power. But sometimes it does.

In 2010, according to investigators, a longwall-machine shearer in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia cut into a piece of sandstone, creating a spark that ignited a small pocket of methane gas and then exploded through more than two miles of tunnels filled with elevated levels of explosive gases and coal dust. Twenty-nine miners, all but two of those working on the site, were killed.

Yesterday, a grand jury in West Virginia issued an indictment charging Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy at the time of the explosion, with willful conspiracy to violate mine safety standards in the months leading to the explosion – all, the indictment reads, "in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money."

The indictment includes four charges, which together carry a potential prison sentence of 31 years.

Blankenship, who retired from Massey (then the largest coal company in Appalachia) in December of 2010 prior to the company's sale to Alpha Natural Resources, has long been a polarizing figure, mocking global climate change, busting unions, and flaunting his wealth in downtrodden regions of Appalachia. In a 2010 profile in this magazine, Jeff Goodell dubbed him "the dark lord of coal country."

Prior to the indictment, two governmental and two independent investigations had already found Massey Energy directly responsible for the deadly explosion. The mine had racked up more than 800 safety violations in the 28 months prior to the disaster, the most common of which was failure to remove explosive gases and accumulations of coal dust.

But the indictment goes further, with investigators setting out to prove that Blankenship himself was directly involved in a conspiracy to violate safety laws and then cover up those violations (including, in the charge that carries the most possible jail time, to investors). It describes routine policies to prioritize coal production over safety, including a series of notes and memos from Blankenship that allegedly threatened employees who failed to cut costs. ("Please be reminded that your core job is to make money," one allegedly read. Another: "You have a kid to feed. Do your job.") When inspectors came, the indictment alleges, warnings of their arrival were circulated in code, allowing workers "to quickly cover up violations" of health and safety laws. Still, investigators regularly found unsafe working conditions, including on one occasion when airflow in the mine was half of what was legally required.

Blankenship has denied the charges. In the past, he has variously blamed the explosion on failures of mine regulators themselves, as well as on an unavoidable build-up of natural gas. But three other men involved in the case, all lower on the ladder of responsibility, have already been convicted and sentenced to prison time.

Soon we'll find out if the same will happen to the man whom Goodell described as "the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today."