There was a reason why he was fighting so many battles. Massey Energy had problems — it did not have a solid foundation, and it was beginning to show. The company had a poor safety record, which attracted the attention of regulators and organized labor. They operated mountaintop mining operations, which attracted the attention of environmental regulators and activists. Massey Energy, similar to most coal companies, posted profits and its stock performed well when coal demand and prices were high. Regulators wrote citations and Massey Energy paid them. The deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine explosion in April 2010 would be the company’s undoing.
A little more than a year ago, Blankenship was indicted by federal prosecutors. The indictment alleged that Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine violations of federal mine safety standards at the UBB mine. He was accused of impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. When the trial finally began, it didn’t take too long for the jury to reach a conviction, albeit on a much lesser charge than the prosecution had hoped.
This would be the first time a CEO for a major coal company would stand trial for charges related to fatalities at an operation. The case evoked strong feelings. The widows and surviving family members wanted closure. Many people in coal country, including his lawyer, who will be appealing the decision, thought he would be acquitted.
The prosecution called 27 witnesses to testify and the defense called none. While we did not have access to the courtroom during the trial, Coal Age has published much of the testimony as reported by WV Metro News, a regional media outlet that covered the trial extensively. The prosecutors kept their distance from the explosion and the possible causes. What readers will discover is that Blankenship, in a way, was his own worst enemy. He recorded phone calls of himself, which were used as evidence. When anyone could have looked at the number of citations and compared it with industry standards, he hired a safety consultant to evaluate the company’s safety performance and refused to take his advice. It was surprising that Blankenship did not take the stand, or moreover, that his attorneys prevented him from taking the stand.
For the prosecution, a win is a win…until the appeal. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has built a strong reputation in the region for bringing criminals to justice and he quickly highlighted the prosecution’s success. Sentencing is scheduled for March.
Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-in-Chief