The indictment of a former coal mining CEO over safety violations Thursday sent a “strong message,” said the United Mine Workers of America. Don Blankenship faces four criminal counts and up to 31 years in prison for alleged safety violations at mines operated by Massey Energy, which he headed from 2000 until his retirement in 2010.
“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched. No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time,” said United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts.
The federal grand jury’s indictment charges that “Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia.”
Blankenship presided over Massey at the time of the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. The April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 people and drew attention to numerous safety violations at Massey mines, including illegal levels of coal dust, low air quality, and worn equipment.
Blankenship’s attorney said his client is “entirely innocent” and would fight the charges. Another former top executive at Massey, David Hughart, was sentenced last year to 42 months in prison for his role in the company’s safety infractions.
Blankenship bills himself as an “American competitionist” on his website, which so far Friday was silent on the matter of the indictment but does feature essays calling the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) “evil and incapable” and criticizing the United Mine Workers of America for its previous support of Al Gore, “the man behind the Global Warming hoax.” The coal industry has been challenged in recent years by new federal regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, which the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to climate change and public health effects.
Massey Energy was fined more than $10 million for violations following the Upper Big Branch explosion, but as a recent investigation by NPR highlights, many fines are going unpaid while violations and dangerous accidents continue at several mines in the United States.
Miner injuries and deaths still occur regularly both in the U.S. and worldwide: Two days before the Blankenship indictment, a West Virginia mine foreman was killed by a piece of rock, the fourteenth worker death this year, according to the MSHA. Just last month, 16 miners were killed in a mine collapse in China’s Xinjiang province. In Turkey, 18 miners were trapped, and at least two killed, after a mine flooded and collapsed.
Several officials from Turkey’s Soma Coal Mine Company are on trial and facing life sentences over an accident that killed more than 300 workers in May.
Recently on Yale University’s Environment 360 site, Ken Ward Jr., a journalist who has long covered the coal industry in West Virginia, reported that accidents are not the only hazard for miners. Black lung disease, which is caused by inhaling coal dust, is on the rise among miners in Central Appalachia: “Coal-mining disasters get historic markers,” Ward wrote. “Black lung deaths just get headstones.”