CEO Ben Hatfield Found Dead: Has Vigilante Justice Come To Coal Country?

Long-time coal company chief executive officer Ben Hatfield was found dead in a cemetery in Mingo County, West Virginia, yesterday. The county’s sheriff’s office and the West Virginia State Police are currently investigating Hatfield’s death, and recent reports claim it is a suspected homicide. Hatfield’s death follows former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s April 6 sentencing for his role in the Upper Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010. Has vigilante justice come to West Virginia’s coal country?

According to West Virginia MetroNews Network, Hatfield was found with a gunshot wound in Mountain View Memorial Gardens near Williamson, West Virginia. Hatfield, like Blankenship, was CEO at the time of a tragic coal mine accident. The incident in which he was involved occurred in 2006, when Hatfield was the head of International Coal Group. The explosion, referred to as the Sago Mine Disaster, took the lives of 12 coal miners.

Sixteen months after the Sago disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration completed its investigation. According to a December 2015 report in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, MSHA issued multiple citations. A review of MSHA’s judicial opinion regarding the findings of its investigation reveals that 36 citations were issued for safety violations, which resulted in fines totaling $32,278.

Although MSHA issued citations, it found that the safety violations, although present, had not directly contributed to the coal mine explosion, so Hatfield was not held accountable for the coal mine disaster. Shocked by MSHA’s findings, the United Mine Workers of America also issued a report, disagreeing with MSHA’s conclusions. In the opening statement, signed by UMWA leaders Cecil E. Roberts and Daniel J. Kane, the UMWA’s stance on the explosion was made very clear.

“Those 12 men did not have to die. But they did, as a result of a series of decisions that were made by the mine’s owner, and allowed by the state and federal agencies that are charged with mine safety.”

The UMWA’s report did not simply begin and end with accusations; it also offered solutions. In the report, the UMWA made multiple suggestions its experts believed would improve coal mine safety and prevent future disasters. As all of those affected by the Upper Branch Disaster know, only four years later, the UMWA’s suggestions had been largely ignored by coal mine owners. It is that refusal to implement all possible safety measures that resulted in Don Blankenship’s recent conviction.

Blankenship’s conviction is the first time in history that a prominent coal mine owner has been sentenced to jail time for his role in a coal mine disaster. While that may seem like a win for the coal miners, Blankenship was only convicted of one misdemeanor charge for his part in a conspiracy to violate mine safety rules. In addition to the misdemeanor charge, carrying a maximum one-year sentence, Blankenship had also faced felony charges, but the jury acquitted him.

For the families who were affected by the Upper Branch coal mine explosion, Blankenship’s one-year sentence is in no way payment for the deaths of their loved ones. However, one year is better than nothing, which is what the families affected by the Sago coal mine disaster got from the judicial system.

Is Ben Hatfield’s death tied to his role in the Sago Mine Disaster? Has the disappointment surrounding Don Blankenship’s recent conviction and sentencing resulted in the coal mining community deciding to take justice into its own hands?

Until the authorities in Mingo County complete the investigation into Hatfield’s death, the shooter’s identity and his or her reason for killing Hatfield will remain unclear. However, it is not a stretch to imagine that coal company executives in Appalachia may be considering increasing their personal security details, because it seems like a possibility that the people of the region have simply had enough of the coal barons, quite literally, getting away with murder.

[Photo by Bradley C. Bower/AP Images]