Donald L. Blankenship, the former C.E.O. of coal giant Massey Energy, was convicted on a federal charge of conspiring to violate mine safety relating to a 2010 explosion that killed 29 people, The New York Times reports.
The disaster at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was the deadliest mining accident in the United States in decades. It placed Blankenship, and his long record of skirting environmental and safety regulations, in the spotlight. Seven months after the disaster, he resigned from his post due, in part, to an extensive investigation by Rolling Stone.
The federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia found Blankenship guilty of one of three charges. He was also accused of deceiving investors and regulators, and making false statements and security fraud. Blankenship could still face prison time, but his lawyers said they would appeal the verdict.
The Upper Big Branch explosion occurred April 5th, 2010, and was caused, according to investigators, by a spark that ignited high levels of methane that had been allowed to accumulate in the mine. The explosion and ensuing fire were further exacerbated by significant amounts of coal dust in the air.
Five years later, the jury was asked not to decide whether Blankenship was guilty or not in the 29 deaths, but whether he put profits ahead of the safety of his miners. Prosecutors honed in on the executive’s multimillion dollar salary, his intricate knowledge of the goings-on of his company — such as demanding production reports every 30 minutes — and memos and programs regarding safety at Massey.
Massey had accumulated thousands of safety citations over the years, and as Rolling Stone reported in the wake of the disaster, federal regulators were often shown mining sites that had been quickly cleaned up. Worse, miners feared losing their jobs if they spoke out about their dangerous working conditions.
“We knew that we’d be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us,” a miner named Stanley Stewart told a House committee. “Maybe not that day, or that week, but somewhere down the line, we’d disappear. We’d seen it happen. I told my wife I felt like I was working for the Gestapo at times.”
Blankenship’s lawyers said the citations were “not crimes,” and that “the word ‘willful’ [did not appear] in any of the citations.” They also accused the prosecution of presenting misinformed assessments of documents and providing faulty testimony. The defense, however, did not call any witnesses of their own during the trial.