DON BLANKENSHIP, the former CEO of Massey Energy, has been sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay a US$250,000 fine after being found guilty of breaching coal mine safety standards.
Blankenship was found guilty in December 2015 of conspiracy to wilfully violate mine health and safety standards. Blankenship, who retired as Massey’s CEO at the end of 2010, was in charge at the company at the time of a huge explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia on 5 April 2010 which killed 29 workers. It was the first time a company CEO has been found guilty in the US for workplace safety violations.
While it was never alleged that Blankenship was directly responsible for the disaster, the official investigation by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found that there was a history of efforts to circumvent safety regulations at the Upper Big Branch mine, and blamed the ‘corporate culture’. This ultimately led to the ignition of methane in the mine which caused a huge coal dust explosion. Massey had failed to carry out necessary inspections, did not adequately train miners, and maintained two hazards reporting books, one available to officials and one for internal use only, which recorded more serious problems. Amongst other things, Massey also failed to adequately rock dust the mine, a process in which a limestone slurry is sprayed onto walls to prevent dust accumulation, and did not comply with approved ventilation plans.
The criminal case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and United States Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General and took more than five years. Prosecutors made reference throughout the trial to Blankenship’s leadership of Massey. Evidence presented to the jury included the testimony of Bill Ross, a manager of technical services at the firm, who said he had repeatedly warned Blankenship about the safety violations, and that ignoring MSHA regulations could not carry on without risking a serious incident. Prosecutors also showed that Blankenship helped to perpetuate safety violations.
“This sentence is a victory for workers and workplace safety. It lets companies and their executives know that you can’t take chances with the lives of coal miners and get away with it,” said acting United States attorney Carol Casto. “Putting the former chief executive officer of a major corporation in prison sends a message that violating mine safety laws is a serious crime, and those who break those laws will be held accountable.”
US secretary of labor Thomas Perez said in a statement that no amount of money could bring back the men who lost their lives in the accident but hoped that the sentence would bring some closure for victims.
“This is a clear case of the punishment not fitting the crime. This sentence is the maximum allowable under the law, but regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk. This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck,” he said.
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