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Grand jury indicts former Massey Energy Co. CEO Blankenship in Upper Big Branch deaths | TribLIVE.com
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Grand jury indicts former Massey Energy Co. CEO Blankenship in Upper Big Branch deaths

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Former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Co. Don Blankenship.
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Ex-coal boss Don Blankenship contends that he’s in federal prosecutors’ crosshairs because he released a controversial video that enraged an old political foe. He weaves the story of his clasheds with West Virginia Democrats through hundreds of pages of court documents in his criminal case.
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29 crosses with 29 miners helmets sit ablaze during a memorial for the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion, at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center, Sunday, April 25, 2010. (Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review)

The former head of a Virginia-based coal mining company could spend as much as 31 years in prison on federal charges connected to the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners in Raleigh County, W.Va., according to court documents made public Thursday.

A Charleston, W.Va., federal grand jury Wednesday indicted Donald L. Blankenship, 64, on four counts of conspiring to violate mine safety and health regulations, impeding mine safety inspectors, lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud.

Blankenship was chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. on April 5, 2010, when an explosion killed 29 miners and injured two at the mine near Montcoal, W.Va.

“Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges,” his attorney, Washington lawyer William W. Taylor III, said. “He will fight them, and he will be acquitted.”

Blankenship has been a “tireless advocate for mine safety” and has been indicted because he has criticized “powerful bureaucrats,” the statement read.

“He will not yield to their effort to silence him,” Taylor said. “He will not be intimidated.”

After the explosion, Massey had two money-losing quarters that led Blankenship to retire, transforming him from a coal industry leader to a blogger criticizing federal mine safety officials.

The Richmond-based company never recovered from the explosion. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. purchased it in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

Blankenship did not return calls seeking comment.

Family members of the miners who died could not be reached for comment.

Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a Massey miner who was 300 feet underground at Upper Big Branch the day of the explosion, said Blankenship ran the mine “like a 1920s operation except you got paid with money instead of scrip.” Blankenship received reports every two hours and would call if production slowed, he said.

“While I believe he is responsible for the deaths of my buddies, I know he can afford the lawyers to find a way out for him,” Stewart said. “He’s escaped prosecution before. Sad to say he may do so again. When all is said and done, all we can hope for in the end is justice — here on earth or in heaven.”

The indictment brings the families of miners who died at the Upper Big Branch mine and the families of 23 miners who died at other Massey facilities when Blankenship was chief executive “one step closer to a measure of justice,” Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said in a statement.

“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of the company was unmatched,” Roberts said. “No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time.”

From at least Jan. 1, 2008, through April 9, 2010, four days after the explosion, Blankenship conspired to violate safety standards and hide the violations at the Massey subsidiary from inspectors, prosecutors said.

Before the explosion, he pressured mine management to cut costs by reducing the number of miners performing safety work, such as building ventilation systems and removing loose, explosive coal dust, prosecutors said.

Blankenship threatened to fire top executives for focusing on safety “in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws and make more money,” prosecutors said.

The Upper Big Branch mine complex produced metallurgical coal, which is used in making steel. That type of coal sells for a much higher price than the “steam” coal sold to power plants.

In 2009, Upper Big Branch generated $331 million in revenue, the most among Massey’s mining groups and about 14 percent of its total revenue, the indictment states.

For 2010, Massey projected the complex would produce $432 million, or about 16 percent, of its total projected revenue.

Despite repeated violations for not having enough air flow to prevent methane gas buildup in the mine, prosecutors said, Blankenship rejected a plan to build an air shaft that would have fed more air into the mine and ordered miners not to build ventilation controls because they would have diverted time from coal production.

The mine needed to “run some coal,” Blankenship said in a 2008 memo quoted in the indictment. “We’ll worry about the ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Contact him at 412-325-4301 at [email protected].

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