Before he was sentenced last week to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship stood in a courtroom in Charleston, W. Va. and said, “I didn’t break any laws.”
He also praised as “proud coal miners” the 29 men who died at the Upper Big Branch mine after Massey’s callous disregard for safety led to a massive explosion in April 2010. “The families already know that they were great coal miners. They know that their loved ones are good men and that they did not conspire with me or anyone else to commit violations of the law.”
Blankenship committed many loathsome acts — environmental destruction, buying judges and lawmakers, running barbarically dangerous mines — while building a fortune on the backs of miners. Trying to link his plight to that of the dead at Upper Big Branch is among the lowest.
The 29 men who were killed in that entirely preventable disaster were not conspirators or lawbreakers of any sort; they were victims — victims of Blankenship’s holy creed: “Run coal.”
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U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, who handed down the maximum sentence allowed by law, including a $250,000 fine, had a clearer view of reality: “The crime is serious,” Berger told Blankenship. “By putting profitability of the company ahead of the safety of your employees, you, Mr. Blankenship, created a culture of noncompliance at Upper Big Branch where your subordinates accepted and, in fact, encouraged unsafe working conditions in order to reach profitability and production targets.”
As Kentucky lawmakers gather Tuesday for this session’s final day, the judge’s words carry special weight. Efforts are still alive, supported by the Bevin administration, to abet a culture of noncompliance for the sake of a faltering industry’s profitability and production targets.
Senate Bill 224, which would end the requirement that mine foremen receive six hours of free state training each year, is posted for a House vote.
Senate Bill 297, which would eliminate state mine inspections, appears dead, but the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves reports that House leaders want budget language reducing mandatory state mine inspections from six to four a year. The foremen training and increased state inspections are among reforms enacted in 2007 after a rash of preventable mining fatalities.
Supporters of safety rollbacks pretend they are helping miners keep their jobs by relieving “strangulation by regulation.” In truth, they are espousing a variation of Blankenship’s “run coal” creed, a disdain for regulations, such as requiring fresh air be pumped to miners, that might interfere with production or profits.
A man who lost his brother at Upper Big Branch said Blankenship’s sentence amounts to 12.5 days for each of the 29 miners who died.
The punishment is paltry, considering the loss of life, but it is extremely rare if not unprecedented for a mining executive to be held criminally accountable for safety violations. A jury had cleared Blankenship of several felony charges, convicting him of the single misdemeanor.
Legislation was introduced in Congress to increase penalties and strengthen miners’ protections after the 2010 disaster but has been blocked by the Republicans in control.
Berger refused to make Blankenship pay almost $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, the company that bought Massey and is in bankruptcy.
If Blankenship’s appeal fails and he does a year’s time, he will leave prison a very rich man.