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Ex-Massey CEO Indicted for Role in 2010 West Virginia Mine Explosion

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenshiphas been indictedby the federal government for his role in a 2010 coal mine disaster.

Blankenship was at the helm of Massey when the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia exploded four years ago, killing 29 coal miners.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced the indictment today. Blankenship is charged with four counts, including conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, securities fraud and hindering inspections by providing advanced warning to underground miners.

The indictment lays out the violations at Upper Big Branch, from insufficient ventilation to unsafe accumulation of coal dust. Investigators agreed that the explosion on April 5, 2010 was caused when sparks from mining equipment ignited a pocket of methane gas. Water sprays that might have contained the fire were missing, and piles of coal dust fueled the blast.

Four Massey employees have already been indicted for their role in the disaster, but many speculated it would be difficult to go after Blankenship. Goodwin alleges that Blankenship was well aware of the numerous safety violations at Upper Big Branch—596 violations in the first six months of 2009 alone—and knew that the mine’s ventilation systems were not in compliance with federal law.

The indictment also alleges that Blankenship was intimately involved with monitoring the coal production at Upper Big Branch, and that he stressed production over safety.
During the Indictment Period, BLANKENSHIP personally monitored the details of UBB’s operations closely. After the longwall section began operation at UBB, BLANKENSHIP insisted on personally receiving a report every thirty minutes detailing the longwall section’s coal production and the reasons for any production delays. BLANKENSHIP insisted on receiving this report via fax at his home on evenings and weekends.
Despite having the ready ability to drastically reduce violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards at UBB, and even though he knew that UBB’s practice of routinely violating such standards was unlawful, BLANKENSHIP purposely elected to continue that practice throughout the Indictment Period. Specifically, he chose to maximize profits by depriving UBB of the coal miners and the non-coal-production time that it needed to comply with mandatory federal mine safety standards, concluding that it was less expensive to routinely pay fines for violating such standards than to allocate the necessary funds to following them.
If convicted, Blankenship faces up to 31 years in prison.

Massey operated coal mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia; the company was sold in 2011 to Alpha Natural Resources. Blankenship was never employed by Alpha, whichthe company reiterated in a statement today.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.