Ex-Massey CEO Blankenship Leaves Prison, Starts Blaming Others for Fatal Upper Big Branch Blast

No sooner did Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Coal Company, leave federal prison after serving a year for violating mine safety laws – violations that led to the fatal explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine seven years ago -- than he started blaming almost everyone else. The sole exception: The 29 victims.

Needless to say, neither the Mine Workers, who at the request of the victims’ families joined federal investigators in probing the blast, nor top congressional Democrats on workers’ issues were pleased with Blankenship’s assertions.

Blankenship was convicted in federal court in West Virginia of willfully conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. That was the heaviest count that could be lodged against him after the UBB explosion, since the federal Mine Safety and Health Act lacks felony criminal penalties for mine operators after such fatal blasts. 

Blankenship was sentenced to the year in jail and fined $250,000. He stepped out of jail on May 10 and started a tour of talk-radio programs to try to vindicate himself.

Blankenship wants the GOP Trump administration to reopen the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s probe into the methane and dust explosion at UBB. He says it should start once Trump “gets the union mindset” out of MSHA. Former Mine Workers Safety and Health Director Joe Main, an Obama administration appointee, headed MSHA then.

And Blankenship says he still might appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mine Workers Communications Director Phil Smith threw cold water on Blankenship’s claims. “Every credible investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster reached the same conclusion: This disaster was rooted in Massey Energy’s culture of ‘production first, safety last,’” Smith told the Charleston Gazette and Mail.

“Massey management at UBB failed to maintain the equipment properly, which caused the longwall shearer to throw sparks, which ignited methane gas that was present only because the company failed to maintain adequate ventilation. That methane gas ignition then caused float coal dust — which was present in excessive amounts only because the company failed to adequately rock-dust the mine — to explode.

“At each of those steps, basic safety practices put in place by a company that chose to follow the law would have prevented this disaster,” Smith said. “But that was not Massey’s corporate policy.” Prosecutors at Blankenship’s trial introduced evidence about his hands-on operation of all Massey mines, putting profits before people and downgrading safety.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., top Democrat on the GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Blankenship’s release from prison “should serve as a reminder the criminal provisions in the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 remain woefull inadequate. The maximum penalty for the willful violation of a mandatory health and safety standard is a mere misdemeanor – rather than a felony – regardless of the number of miners killed because of criminally reckless conduct,” such as that Blankenship encouraged. 

Scott noted he reintroduced a tougher mine safety bill on April 5, even though it went nowhere in the prior GOP-run House. That tougher measure “would deter the criminal endangerment of miners by increasing the maximum penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony, if a mine operator knowingly violated mandatory health and safety standards which recklessly exposed miners to significant risk of serious injury or death,” he said.

“The bill would also impose a maximum five-year prison sentence,” Scott said, and fines of up to $1 million, or in one case, up to $2 million. Mine owners and officials who engaged in a pattern or practice of ignoring safety standards – shown by a second conviction – would face those higher fines.