Don Blankenship, the longtime chief executive officer of Massey Energy, was indicted Thursday on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
A federal grand jury in Charleston charged Blankenship with conspiring to cause willful violations of ventilation requirements and coal-dust control rules — meant to prevent deadly mine blasts —during a 15-month period prior to the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.
The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, also alleges that Blankenship led a conspiracy to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections.
“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” the indictment states. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB's practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
The indictment also alleges that, after the explosion, Blankenship made false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the investing public about Massey's safety practices before the explosion.
The three felonies and one misdemeanor carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years imprisonment, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a prepared statement. He would not comment beyond the prepared statement.
The indictment comes after a more than four-year investigation that began following the mine disaster on April 5, 2010, but expanded to examine a troubled safety record that critics have long argued put coal production and profits ahead of worker protection.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby has led an unprecedented government effort to link major safety lapses at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines up the corporate ladder to Blankenship, who was known for keeping a firm grip on every aspect of Massey's operations during nearly two decades at the company's helm.
“It's an important day for many, many families in the Central Appalachian coal fields,” said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has fought Blankenship on behalf of miners' widows and a rival coal operator who alleged Massey drove him out of business. “For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”
Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that Massey put the safety of its miners first and promoting his theory that the Upper Big Branch explosion was fueled by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas that inundated the Raleigh County mine.
“If they put me behind bars ... it will be political,” Blankenship wrote in a May 2013 article posted on a blog he has used to defend his record and attack his critics.
In a statement issued late Thursday afternoon, Blankenship's attorney, William W. Taylor III, said, “Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.
“Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety. His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated.”
Two government and two independent investigations blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion.
Those investigations all generally agreed that the explosion erupted when the mine's longwall-machine shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, investigators said, ignited a pocket of methane gas. Investigators concluded that worn-out bits on the cutting shearer contributed to the explosion, while missing water sprays allowed the ignition to spread. Illegal levels of coal dust had not been cleaned up, providing fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels, investigators said.
The 43-page indictment outlines a long list of repeated and serious violations at Upper Big Branch of rules that require proper ventilation of underground mines and mandate that operators prevent the accumulation of highly explosive coal dust.
In one instance cited in the indictment, a federal inspector in June 2009 discovered fresh airflow of 147 cubic feet per minute in an area of the mine where flow of 9,000 cubic feet was required. In another example, the indictment notes that in January 2010 a federal inspector found coal dust accumulated along the entire length of the conveyor belt used to carry coal out of Upper Big Branch.
The indictment alleged that the mine's own regular safety examinations revealed “near-constant” violations of dust-control rules that were seldom corrected by the company.
Blankenship pressured Upper Big Branch management to violate safety standards in favor of maximizing production and profits, the indictment alleges. One mine manager received a handwritten note from Blankenship in March 2009 “chastising him” for “insufficient attention to cost-cutting,” telling the manager, “You have a kid to feed. Do your job,” the indictment alleged. That same mine manager at Upper Big Branch was told, when he wasn't producing as much coal as Blankenship demanded, “I could Khrushchev you. Do you understand?”
The indictment alleges that, after the Upper Big Branch explosion, with Massey stock prices — and thus Blankenship's personal worth — dropping, Blankenship made false statements to both the SEC and to the investing public about the company's safety practices.
According to the indictment, Blankenship directed the drafting of an SEC filing and a press release that defended Massey's safety efforts. The statement said that Massey officials “do not condone any violation” of safety rules and “strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times.”
The indictment charges that at the time those statements were issued, Blankenship knew that they were “materially false, fraudulent, fictitious and misleading” and that the statements “would act as a fraud and a deceit upon purchasers” of Massey stock.
The charge that Blankenship made untrue statements to the investing public carries a possible penalty of up to 20 years in prison, the longest of the sentences for the allegations in the indictment.
Blankenship invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from MSHA, the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training and an independent team appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to probe the disaster.
Already, Goodwin's investigation has produced four convictions — including plea agreements with an Upper Big Branch superintendent and a Massey unit president — and a more-than-$200-million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources — which bought Massey in 2011 — that required Alpha to fund major safety improvements and create a foundation to support mine safety and health research.
For years, Blankenship has been not only a powerful voice in the coal industry but a power broker whose involvement in West Virginia politics could cut both ways. At a time when a major verdict against Massey was headed for the state Supreme Court, his personal funds helped defeat then-Justice Warren McGraw's re-election effort and his personal friendship with Blankenship likely helped cost then-Justice Spike Maynard his seat on the court. Some Republican operatives who helped engineer their party's takeover of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature in this year's election got their start working for Blankenship-funded political efforts.
Less than a year after the mine disaster, Massey announced in December 2010 that Blankenship would retire from the company at the end of the year. The following month, Alpha announced its plans to buy Massey.
In a prepared statement Thursday night, Alpha said “it is important to note that Mr. Blankenship left Massey the year before we acquired the company and was never an employee of Alpha Natural Resources.”
“What happened at UBB will never be forgotten,” the Alpha statement said. “We can only hope that the outcome of the upcoming proceedings that were announced today will provide some level of comfort and closure for the families of the fallen miners and to the larger community where we live and operate.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.