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After Blankenship trial, seeking stiffer penalties for mine safety crimes

A Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives is renewing the call for tougher penalties for mine safety crimes following the conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said Friday that lawmakers need to act to make some criminal violations of mine safety rules felonies, rather than misdemeanors.

“While I am pleased that there is some measure of justice for the miners and their families at Upper Big Branch mine — and commend the U.S. Attorney and his team for their diligent efforts — it is clear that the sanctions available under current law are weak,” said Scott, who is the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

On Thursday, jurors found Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate federal mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion.

Generally, criminal conspiracies are felony offenses. But because the jury found that the only underlying objective of Blankenship’s conspiracy was violating safety standards — not defrauding federal safety regulators — the conviction is a misdemeanor, punishable with only up to one year of prison time.

“A misdemeanor sanction is a woefully insufficient deterrent for criminal conduct for an operator who repeatedly puts production ahead of safety requirements,” Scott said in a statement.

Scott noted that the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, introduced again earlier this year, would “reform the outdated criminal provisions in the Mine Act by imposing a felony penalty with a maximum prison sentence of up to five years, or up to $1 million in penalties, for cases in which a mine operator knowingly violates a mandatory health or safety standard and recklessly exposes a miner to significant risk of serious injury, serious illness or death.”

“Regrettably, Congress has failed to act on this proposal over the past five years,” Scott said. “It strains common sense that, under existing law, accusations of securities fraud or false statements to the government could have resulted in decades in prison. But the jury’s finding of a willful violation of mandatory mine health and safety standards, which endangered miners’ lives, resulted in a sentence that cannot exceed one year in prison.”

None of West Virginia’s three Republican U.S. House members are sponsors of the legislation.

In the Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is a sponsor of similar legislation. Manchin did not mention that legislation on Thursday when he issued a press release reacting to the Blankenship verdict.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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