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CEO of company responsible for fatal West Virginia mine blast could face 31-year prison term

14 November 2014

On November 13 the former CEO of the company operating the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the site of an explosion in 2010 that killed 29 people, was indicted on federal charges relating to a mine safety investigation that followed the blast. In a statement issued by his office, US attorney Booth Goodwin said the four counts carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years in prison.

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Goodwin said a federal grand jury indicted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship on charges that include conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud.

The indictment alleges Blankenship conspired to violate mine safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch Mine from January 2008 until the date of the disaster in April 2010, and specifically that he was part of a conspiracy to provide advance warning of federal mine safety inspections, allowing site supervisors and managers to conceal and cover up safety violations.

The grand jury’s indictment depicts the former executive as a hands-on boss who regularly pressured his subordinates to boost production and cut costs while disregarding routine and flagrant safety violations. The report cites scores of serious safety lapses at the Raleigh County mine catalogued by federal mine safety inspectors. It suggests that many more would have been discovered but for the mine’s systematic efforts to warn underground operators of the arrival of federal inspectors.

”Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety violation every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations UBB was committing. 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 safety laws, and make more money,’’ the indictment said.

The report attributed the routinely inadequate ventilation conditions to the use of too few personnel: “Blankenship’s imposition and aggressive enforcement of coal-production quotas,” and in one example, “Blankenship’s direction ... not to construct certain ventilation controls.’’

At another point, the report states that “... Blankenship consistently pressured UBB management to cut the number of miners in jobs critical to safety law compliance.’’

It charges that the executive, in multiple handwritten messages, chastised managers over the mine’s costs. They conclude that the executive chose to flout federal rules, “concluding that it was less expensive to routinely pay fines for violating such standards than to allocate the funds necessary to following them.’’

After the explosion, Blankenship made false statements and representations to the SEC concerning Massey Energy’s safety practices prior to the explosion. He made similar statements in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock, the indictment said.

Four investigations into the Upper Big Branch explosion found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books – an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitised version for regulators.

Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $7.1bn in June 2012. Blankenship, who retired ahead of the merger, has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney, William W. Taylor III, told the Charleston Gazette: “Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and be acquitted.’’

The US attorney’s probe, one of several state and federal investigations of the fatalities, has already produced four convictions of lower-ranked Massey employees.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts hailed the indictment, charging that Massey’s safety record under Mr. Blankenship was unparalleled in its disregard for worker safety.

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