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Coal Baron's Conviction Could Be a Warning to Other Execs

Former Massey chief executive Don Blankenship has been convicted of hiding safety problems at coal mines, including Upper Big Branch, where 29 miners died in 2010. Credit: West Virginia Governor's Office
Former Massey chief executive Don Blankenship has been convicted of hiding safety problems at coal mines, including Upper Big Branch, where 29 miners died in 2010. Credit: West Virginia Governor's Office
December 4, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - Don Blankenship has been convicted of conspiring to hide dangers at Massey coal mines, and workplace-safety experts say it's a warning for other executives.

Blankenship, the former Massey chief executive, was found guilty of conspiring to deceive federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors. The misdemeanor charge was the least serious of the three facing Blankenship but still could bring a year in prison.

Ellen Smith, owner and editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said executives who deal with MSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have been paying attention to the two-month-long trial.

"What this is going to do is put executives on notice," she said. "If they know of problems, they'd better take care of it. And it's not just MSHA, but OSHA as well."

Blankenship has argued that federal regulators and an act of God - a sudden release of methane from the rocks - were responsible for the mine disaster at Upper Big Branch that killed 29 miners five years ago. Several investigations contradict that.

It was unusual for a mine operator to face any criminal charges. Blankenship said he was singled out for his conservative Republican political activism, and according to his attorneys, he plans to appeal. But prosecutors argued that he fostered a system that gave Massey miners advance notice of mine inspections, and they used the time to cover up dangers.

That was key to his conspiracy conviction, Smith said.

"That is the kind of deceit or trickery that makes up this conspiracy," she said, "when people know about this and they all work together."

Smith said the corporate culture at companies such as Massey can put an enormous amount of pressure on employees to accept dangers they shouldn't have to put up with.

"As long as people are desperate for jobs and they're willing to work in unsafe conditions," she said, "you could very well see another operator like Don Blankenship."

After the disaster at Upper Big Branch, Blankenship retired and Richmond-based Massey was bought by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in Abingdon.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA