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Donald Blankenship indicted for role in coal mine disaster

World Coal,

Donald Blankenship, the ex CEO of Massey Energy, has been indicted for his role in the Upper Big Branch coal disaster, in which 29 miners lost their lives.

The disaster was the worst coal mining accident in 40 years. Blankenship has been charged with widespread violations of safety rules and deceiving federal inspectors.

The former chief executive, once dubbed “the Dark Lord of Coal County” has been indicted on four criminal counts by a federal jury. He now faces decades in federal prison.

Blankenship was accused of looking away from hundreds of safety violations “in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

The 43-page indictment said Blankenship "knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB's practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money."

Blankenship’s defending attorney said his client had been “a tireless advocate of mine safety”, and that the charges levied against him were false.

Parents and families of those miners killed in the coal mine explosion have said it is time Blankenship was called to account.

Senator Jay Rockefeller sided with the families who lost loved ones in the explosion, saying "For more than four years, Upper Big Branch families have cried out for justice for their loved ones lost in that horrific tragedy," He said in a statement. "Today's indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is another step toward justice. But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it's more than he deserves."

In February 2013, a former longtime subordinate, David Hughart, testified that Blankenship ordered the widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause of the blast was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books - an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitised one for regulators.

The indictment says Blankenship conspired to violate standards at the mine from January 2008 until April 2010, when the explosion tore through the tunnels.

According to the indictment, Blankenship’s aggressive enforcement of mining quotas left workers no time to build ventilation systems “because constructing them diverted time from coal production.” He denied a request to build an air shaft in a mine where airflow was below the legal minimum, the indictment said. He also cut the number of miners focusing on safety in order to make the operation more profitable.

The New York Times also reported that Blankenship has been charged with authorising a “scheme” of warnings to miners underground when federal safety inspectors made surprise visits. By using “code words and phrases,” word was passed by telephone from a guardhouse to a mine office to supervisors deep underground, who ordered miners “to quickly cover up violations” before inspectors arrived, the indictment said.

Blankenship – who was referred to in a 2010 Rolling Stone article as “hated, feared and respected” – could now spend 31 years behind bars. 

Edited from various sources by Sam Dodson

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