“We got the top dog”: Prosecutors indict former coal company CEO

US attorney Booth Goodwin II and assistant attorney Steven Ruby announced yesterday a four-count indictment against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Their four year investigation came following the April 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine which killed 29 workers. The miners died in a massive coal dust explosion which could have been averted by following fundamental safety precautions.

Page 1 of the indictment sums up why Blankeship habitually broke mine safety regulations:

“in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The Charleston Gazette’s Kate White interviewed some of the miners’ families. The sister of Edward Dean Jones, 50, told her:

“I had given up on it. To see him indicted means the system is working."

The son of Rex Mullins, 50, said:

“All I can say is, I’m elated."

The daughter of Michael Elswick, 56, said:

“It’s the best news I’ve had in four years.  I thought he was going to walk away with blood on his hands.”

The father of Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, told the reporter:

“Don Blankenship was ruling this state at one time, but his time is over and I’m glad of it. We got the top dog.”

The 40-page indictment is a litany of the ways that Don Blankenship micromanaged the day-to-day operations of the Upper Big Branch mine. The document explains in detail how Blankenship knew that the mine was violating hundreds of safety regulations and that he had the ability to prevent them. He sent handwritten messages to the management executive(s) [not named] telling them to ignore safety requirements. For example:

Blankenship dismissed the need for an effective ventilation system:

“…you need to run some coal. We’ll worry about ventilation and other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”

Blankenship dismissed the need to have adequate roof bolts (which prevent the mine roof from caving in):

“Run coal. Don’t bolt for the year 2525.”

Blankenship dismissed the MSHA requirement to conduct weekly examinations  of all air courses. The indictment notes that when the management executive resisted

“Blankenship chastised him for ‘letting MSHA run his mine.’”

At the same time, Blankenship was telling shareholders and the public that his company did not condone violations of mine safety regulations. The grand jury concluded that Blankenship's statements were: “materially false, fraudulent, fictitious, and misleading," a violation of Securities and Exchange Commission laws.

University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor remarked yesterday about the news:

" US Attorney Booth Goodwin has set an example for every prosecutor in the country by indicting Don Blankenship, the venal, punitive, flamboyant, and reckless former CEO of Massey Energy. For years, Blankenship demanded updates on coal production every two hours and, the indictment reveals, browbeat senior managers to cut cost and violate crucial safety.  ...The families of the 29 men who died can take some solace that this courageous prosecution, by a prosecutor from coal country, takes the strongest possible stand to protect miners from the most reprehensible kind of greed."

 

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