Don Blankenship fell from quite a height. Five years ago, the former Massey Energy CEO had the West Virginia coal industry in his pocket, along with a fair number of the state’s judges. He’d put the coal miners’ union under his foot and crushed it. Adhering to an ideology of “survival of the most productive,” he had a mountaintop mansion and made $18 million a year, while his mines racked up of hundreds of safety violations. Then, one April afternoon in 2010, an explosion ripped through Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, killing 29 workers. It was the worst mining disaster in four decades, so bad that even the King of Coal couldn’t fully get away with it.
On Thursday, a jury in Charleston convicted Blankenship of conspiring to violate mine-safety regulations at Upper Big Branch. He was acquitted of two more serious felony fraud charges. Blankenship faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail and $250,000 for the misdemeanor—equivalent to the maximum prison time for excessive littering, and far less than the potential 30-year sentence had he been found guilty on all counts. Still, US Attorney Booth Goodwin called it a “landmark day for the safety of coal miners.” Asked for his response to the verdict, Blankenship just winked.
It’s a pitiful sort of justice, but historic nonetheless. Blankenship’s indictment marked a first for a coal baron. It was made possible not only by the scale of the 2010 disaster and a massive investment of resources on the part of the prosecutorial team, but also because Blankenship had been such an obsessive micromanager, and so wasn’t as insulated from responsibility as top executives often are. Perhaps most significantly, the trial gave UBB miners the chance to speak up about how the relentless pursuit of profits at Massey put their lives in danger. As the sister of one of the miners killed in the explosion told a local reporter after the verdict was announced, “Just to see [Blankenship] sit there every day and have to listen to the kind of person he was, that kind of gave me, it felt like that was speaking for the 29 miners that passed away.”
“Hardly nobody would talk,” even after the disaster in 2010, testified former operator Stanley “Goose” Stewart, who broke down in tears on the stand. “I said, ‘I’m going to speak up. I’m going to tell the truth.’” Shaun Ellison, another UBB worker, told of being unable to see in the “dusty and dark” air of the mine, and of being pressured by supervisors to tamper with equipment meant to monitor safety conditions. “There wasn’t enough ventilation [at UBB] and they knew that,” Ellison testified. “The pressure was always there to produce.” Rick “Smurf” Hutchens said supervisors ignored his warnings about high methane levels, deep water, and other hazards. When he took time to deal with safety issues, he was criticized for slowing down production, he told the jury. “I was always pressured that I wasn’t running enough coal,” Hutchens said.