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Blankenship urges Trump not to ‘punish’ coal executives

Fresh from his one-year stint in federal prison for criminal conspiracy to violate mine safety and health standards, former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship urged the Trump administration not to support legislation that would lengthen the sentences for any future coal executives convicted of such crimes.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, Blankenship said Congress “all too often wants to punish coal companies, coal operators and coal supervisors” and praised the administration for its efforts thus far to “roll back punitive coal mine and coal use regulations.”

“Coal supervisors are not criminals, and the laws they work under are already frightening enough for them,” Blankenship said in the letter. “More onerous criminal laws will not improve mine safety.”

Blankenship’s letter was posted on his website on Tuesday, touted a day earlier on Twitter and distributed to news outlets by Republican operative Greg Thomas.

Since being released from custody last week, Blankenship has resumed a media crusade that seeks to revise the findings of multiple investigations about the cause of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, in which 29 miners were killed, and targets Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is expected to face strong Republican opposition in his re-election bid next year.

Blankenship had indicated last week that he would ask the Trump administration to re-examine the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration report on the mine disaster, and his attorneys filed a notice indicating they will appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though he already has served his sentence.

Last year, Blankenship was sentenced to the maximum allowable time in prison after he was convicted for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch over a 15-month period prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion.

Under federal law, violating or conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards is classified as a misdemeanor, or a minor crime, with a maximum jail sentence of one year. Mine safety advocates have been urging Congress for years to make such crimes felonies, but the legislation has made little progress.

Three coal industry trade associations, including the West Virginia Coal Association, had urged the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Blankenship’s conviction, saying the case amounted to criminalizing the “tough decisions” mine executives have to make to balance “production, safety and regulatory compliance.” The 4th Circuit rejected that thinking, saying that, by providing for coal executives to personally serve prison time, lawmakers had said mine operators “should not balance the financial returns to increasing output against the costs of safety compliance.”

Investigations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and the United Mine Workers union agreed that the UBB disaster was caused by a longtime pattern of safety violations by Massey and by Blankenship’s insistence that the company put coal production and profits ahead of safety protections for miners.

Blankenship sent copies of his letter to Manchin, McAteer, UMW President Cecil Roberts, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who was the owner of the Sago Mine in Upshur County when an explosion at that operation killed 12 miners in January 2006.

Neither the White House nor the Labor secretary’s office responded to a request for comment on Blankenship’s letter. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, where spokesman Clint Carte refused to comment.

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

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