A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted Donald Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy Co., on four felony charges related to the worst coal mining disaster since the 1960s, holding him personally accountable for hundreds of safety violations that preceded the deadly explosion.
The impetus for the rare FBI investigation into occupational safety violations was a massive blast that killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010 at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., the company’s most lucrative coal operation and one that Blankenship allegedly oversaw personally. Several other current and former company employees have already been charged and convicted.
If convicted on all counts, Blankenship faces up to 31 years in prison.
A company manager, David Hughart, was sentenced last year to 42 months in jail and three years of supervised release, although he had no direct involvement in the operation of the Upper Big Branch mine.
The grand jury alleged that Blankenship participated personally in a scheme in which messages were relayed from security guards to managers to underground crews whenever federal mine safety inspectors showed up unannounced at the mine, so miners could conceal as many safety violations as possible.
Even so, the mine was cited about 835 times for violating mandatory federal mine safety and health standards between Jan. 1, 2008 and April 9, 2010, the indictment said. Most significantly, it said, the company was cited scores of times for violating mine ventilation requirements – crucial measures to prevent explosions and fires.
On or around June 4, 2009, it said, a federal mine safety inspector discovered that the air flow measured 147 cubic feet per minute in an area of the mine where 9,000 cubic feet per minute were required to carry away explosive substances in the mine atmosphere.
Blankenship stands accused of conspiring, from about Jan. 1, 2008 through about April 9, 2010, of conspiring to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards.
In addition, the indictment alleges that after the deadly explosion, Blankenship made false statements and representations to the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning Massey Energy’s safety practices and materially misleading omissions in connection with the purchase and sale of the company’s stock.