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Families react to Blankenship indictment: ‘Thank God it has finally happened’

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette
Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother, Edward Dean Jones, was killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, is overcome with joy at the news of the indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship late Thursday afternoon in her Kanawha City home.

Judy Jones Peterson has called U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin dozens of times in the nearly five years since her brother was killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Peterson wanted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship indicted for the disaster, which killed 29 miners. On Thursday, she got her wish; a federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on four counts related to the UBB disaster.

“I can’t even believe it. Thank God, he’s finally done it. Thank God, it has finally happened,” said Peterson, whose brother, Edward Dean Jones, was killed in the explosion.

She said the indictment has restored her faith in the justice system.

“I had given up on it,” Peterson said. “To see him indicted means the system is working. To see him convicted would mean it has worked.”

A year after the explosion, victims’ families gathered at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration training academy in Raleigh County, where they were told that officials had agreed to accept $200 million in fines, victim restitution and mine safety improvements to settle enforcement actions and some criminal matters.

Families said at the time they wanted justice, not money.

“That’s how we still feel,” said June Mullins, the mother of Rex Mullins, who died in the blast. “We stood up to fight for what was right, but we didn’t think it would happen.”

“All I can say is, I’m elated,” said Jason Mullins, Rex’s son.

Longtime critics of Massey and Blankenship said Thursday that allegations in the indictment back up what they’ve always known about safety practices at Massey operations and about the company’s efforts to cover up dangerous conditions by warning underground workers when inspectors were on the way.

“This indictment confirms information we have heard time and time again that the practice of advance notification and the “War on Safety” at Massey was known to and condoned at the highest level,” said Tim Bailey, a Charleston lawyer who has clashed with Blankenship and represented many of the Upper Big Branch families.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, said miners had known for years what the broader public learned when Upper Big Branch blew up.

“All Americans learned what we in the coalfields already knew: For coal miners, working for Massey meant putting your life and your limbs at risk,” Roberts said. He praised the U.S. Attorney’s Office for “following through on its commitment to take the Upper Big Branch investigation to the very top of the Massey corporate structure.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., issued a statement Thursday that said, “I’ve always had complete faith that justice would be served and Don Blankenship’s indictment today is a first step in providing some peace to the families of the Upper Big Branch miners who lost their lives.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., said in a statement: “For more than four years, Upper Big Branch families have cried out for justice for their loved ones lost in that horrific tragedy. Today’s indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is another step toward justice. But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”

Jami Cash, who lost her father, Michael Elswick, in the explosion, said she was overwhelmed after finding out about the indictment.

“It’s the best news I’ve had in four years,” she said. “ I thought he was going to walk away with blood on his hands.”

Gary Quarles had believed he would see Blankenship held accountable since he talked to Goodwin and his top assistant, Steve Ruby, about two years ago.

“They told me, ‘We’re working on this,’ and I believed they really cared about it,” said Quarles. His son, Gary Wayne Quarles, died at UBB.

Quarles said he didn’t call the U.S. attorney again until Blankenship came out with a video earlier this year, on the fourth anniversary of the blast.

The 51-minute video — titled “Upper Big Branch: Never Again” — recycles theories previously pushed by Blankenship and other top Massey officials and company attorneys that the April 5, 2010, explosion was fueled by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas that inundated the Raleigh County mine. It argues that an illegal buildup of coal dust played no role in the disaster, insists that Massey’s ventilation practices were not at fault and depicts Blankenship as a major safety and health innovator in the mining industry.

“I watched it, and it was sickening,” Quarles said. “I called Booth Goodwin then and I said, ‘Booth, what’s going on?’ He told me he was working on it, and I believed him. I didn’t want to bother him. I felt like he was telling me the truth, and I was hoping he was telling me the truth and, evidently, he was.”

Quarles and his wife, Patty, live in Whitesville, about 10 minutes from the site of the explosion. Quarles worked for Massey for nine of the 29 years he spent underground.

“My brother was a coal miner, my dad was a coal miner. That’s all we’ve ever known,” he said. “Don Blankenship was ruling this state at one time, but his time is over and I’m glad of it. We got the top dog.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1723 or @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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