A federal jury in West Virginia today found coal executive Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety rules.
But the jury found that Blankenship wasn’t guilty of the other two charges on which he was indicted, including securities fraud.
Blankenship was the chief executive of Massey Energy, which operated coal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. A Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal Company, operated the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where on April 5, 2010, an explosion killed 29 coal miners.
Blankenship is the most prominent coal CEO to face federal prosecution for a mine disaster. He was infamous for being a hands-on executive who, prosecutors alleged, micromanaged operations at several mines, including Upper Big Branch. The prosecution successfully claimed Blankenship was aware of the numerous safety issues at the mine and ignored them in favor of pressing for greater profits.
Blankenship was also charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., for allegedly fostering the practice of miners calling ahead to colleagues underground to warn them when federal safety inspectors were on site. Prosecutors also charged him with making false statements about Massey’s safety practices and lying to the publicly traded company’s investors, though the jury determined he wasn’t guilty on those two counts.
Blankenship faced 30 years in prison for the three counts, which for the 65-year-old would likely amount to a life sentence. According to the Charleston (WV) Gazette, the one conspiracy charge is a misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in prison.
Kentucky mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard said the simple fact that a coal CEO was brought to trial for alleged mine safety crimes is historic. But Oppegard doesn’t expect the jury’s verdict to have any practical implication for other coal companies or executives.
“I think it’s historic but I don’t think it really has implications for anybody,” he said. “Blankenship is such an atypical coal operator that hardly anybody else in the nation, well I mean, there’s never been anyone as high as him from a coal company that’s been indicted before. So that tells you something right there.”
Massey Energy was sold in 2011 to Alpha Natural Resources; Alpha filed bankruptcy in August, and is using the bankruptcy to try to avoid paying Blankenship’s legal fees.
Blankenship’s sentencing is tentatively scheduled for March 2016, though his lawyers indicated they would appeal.