Former chief executive of Massey Energy Company, Donald Blankenship, was charged for multiple violations of safety rules and deceit of federal inspectors that ultimately led to the death of 29 coal miners during a single incident in 2010; the deadliest mine incident since 1970.
Indicted on four criminal counts by a federal grand jury in the Upper Big Branch disaster, Blankenship faces a maximum of 31 years’ imprisonment.
He is being held personally responsible for the hundreds of safety violations that occurred at the mine in the 28 months leading up to the explosion (which include failing to ventilate coal dust and methane, highly explosive substances, and not properly watering down equipment to prevent sparks that could lead to explosions).
Mr. Blankenship was charged with deceit for devising a plan that workers had in place to warn underground miners when federal safety inspectors made surprise visits.
With the use of various code words, miners underground were given the sign to cover up any violations that were being committed. Ultimately, these violations led to an explosion that killed all miners working underground. The 2011 federal investigation of the mine safety agency noted that the explosion was preventable, issuing 369 citations against the company.
The company that bought Massey in 2011, Alpha Natural Resources, paid $209 million in criminal penalties following the incident to settle with the Department of Justice.
Mr. Blankenship is said to have looked away from hundreds of safety violations in order to produce more coal, and make more money. Investments needed to improve safety were cut, and twice regulators found the mine operator was calibrating methane monitors every three months as opposed to the regulated 31 days. All these factors played into the mine workers not being able to properly read gas levels, and notice when methane had built up to an explosive level.
Two subordinates of Mr. Blankenship, including a former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine, have pleaded guilty in criminal cases.
This story is a grim reminder to us all that, regardless of your position, if you see something being done in an unsafe way it is your duty to inform the worker of the violation, fix it, or find someone who can help.
It is also a reminder to that they are liable when safety incidents occur at their company. In the long-run, a company free of safety accidents and incidents will improve the bottom-line far more than one that just tries to get the job done quickly and is plague with safety violation fines.