Environment

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been sentenced to the maximum one year in prison and another year of supervised release for his role in a conspiracy at the company to skirt mine safety standards. Judge Irene Berger also imposed a maximum $250,000 fine, which is due immediately.

Blankenship was convicted in December of conspiring to willfully violate federal mine safety laws — a misdemeanor. The charge stemmed from an investigation into the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal that killed 29 men.

The ex-executive was cleared of two felony counts of lying to investors and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety record in the wake of the explosion. Those counts combined would have carried prison terms of up to 30 years.

While speaking to the court, Blankenship maintained his innocence on the conspiracy charge. He then attempted to apologize to family members of those who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch, but was stopped short by Judge Berger.

“You should be someone that we are able to tout as a West Virginia success story. Instead of being able to tout you, we are here,” said Judge Berger to Blankenship while delivering the sentence.

Outside of the courtroom following sentencing, Blankenship spoke only briefly about those who lost their lives and the reactions of those who lost their loved ones.

“I feel badly for them. It’s a lot of emotion and that’s understandable,” Blankenship said to reporters.

UBB Victims’ Families Offer Mixed Reactions to Sentencing

During a short recess Wednesday morning, Betty Harrah, who lost her 40-year-old brother Steve in the blast, expressed her frustrations over Judge Berger not allowing victims’ families to speak at the hearing thus far.

“Her not allowing her us to actually, finally, to say something to that man is not right. If he has the right to speak, we should have the right to speak,” said Harrah.

Harrah also referenced a pre-trial ruling in June by Judge Berger that allowed Blankenship to leave the state to see his son compete in a dirt bike race.

“We got a lifetime sentencing and we didn’t do anything wrong. My nephew has to go see his daddy at the grave. [Blankenship] gets to go see his son go racing,” she said.

Gary Quarles, who lost his son, Gary Wayne Quarles, at Upper Big Branch, was satisfied with the sentence handed down by Berger.

“We are very happy. I think all the families are very happy that she gave him what she was allowed to give him,” said Quarles.

Gary QuarlesASHTON MARRA / WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Gary Quarles

Quarles and other family members of the victims of the Upper Big Branch explosion say they want Congress to increase the penalties assessed to those at the top of the corporate ladder for workplace safety violations.

Blankenship’s attorneys said after the verdict in December they planned to file an appeal. One has not yet been filed.