Don Blankenship, 65, former CEO of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in prison on Wednesday. According to reports, the former executive overlooked safety lapses in a West Virginia mine. The lapses were ultimately blamed for an explosion that killed 29 people in 2010. Six years later, a jury found Blankenship guilty of consciously violating safety standards and deceiving mine regulators.
A court affidavit revealed the former CEO was fully aware the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia was cited for hundreds of safety violations each year. However, Blankenship did nothing to remedy the violations.
Prosecutors believe Don Blankenship violated the safety practices on purpose, in an attempt to increase his profits. Authorities said the coal mine made over $331 million in 2009, which was 14 percent of the company’s total revenue. “He made a conscious, cold-blooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him,” prosecutors said during closing arguments.
Bloomberg reports Blankenship made a brief statement prior to sentencing, saying, “It is important to everyone that you know that I’m not guilty of a crime.”
Don Blankenship insists the coal mine explosion was caused by an upsurge in natural gas. However, federal investigators disagree.
The investigators said they found defective equipment, which burst into flames when methane gas mixed with coal dust. They also confirmed the mine was poorly ventilated and the water sprinklers were inadequate to put out the fire before it spiraled out of control.
It was the deadliest mine explosion in America since 1972 when 91 miners lost their lives. The massive explosion led to an extensive investigation into Massey Energy. A total of four top company employees were convicted before Don Blankenship was even arraigned.
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) April 6, 2016
During Blankenship’s trial, which began in October 2015, prosecutors described Blankenship as a taskmaster and micromanager who preferred to hire more hands, and make more money, as opposed to spending money to improve safety standards at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.
In addition to a sentence of one year in prison, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger also slapped him with a $250,000 fine.
The acting U.S. attorney in Charleston described the sentence as a landmark achievement for workplace safety and workers. He said sentencing a former chief executive of one of the leading coal mines in the country sends a strong message that circumventing mine safety laws is a serious crime and anyone who breaks those laws will be held accountable.
Coal baron Don Blankenship faces sentencing today https://t.co/phS8YBOG6m pic.twitter.com/9pf8rpRkvk
— Bloomberg (@business) April 6, 2016
According to NBC News, Don Blankenship was acquitted of more severe charges, including securities fraud and falsifying statements. If convicted of those charges, he could have faced more than five years in a federal prison.
Don Blankenship’s attorneys vowed to fight the conviction, saying Blankenship was badly portrayed by prosecutors. They argued that even though their client was known for his bluntness, and notoriously pushed his workers hard, he was a man who lived by strong family values and loved his community and all the people who worked with Massey Energy.
“Not one witness testified that Mr. Blankenship instructed him to violate safety regulations or otherwise suggested or insinuated that he should violate any of the regulations.”
Although Don Blankenship will spend one year in prison, the victims’ families do not believe it is nearly enough. Judy Jones Petersen, who lost her brother Dean Jones in the explosion, said, “The blood of these 29 people is on your hands.” Robert Atkins, who lost his son, said, “We buried our kid because of you. I go to the grave site to see my kid’s casket.”
Don Blankenship earned the nickname “King of Coal” because he was responsible for transforming a family business into Appalachia’s biggest coal producer. During his reign, he crushed the mine workers union and refined the mountaintop removal process for the harvesting of coal.