Former CEO found guilty of conspiracy in West Virginia mine explosion
Jury finds former coal executive Don Blankenship guilty of a conspiracy to commit safety violations that resulted in an April 2010 explosion that killed 29
Don Blankenship, the "outlaw" former coal executive and enemy of environmentalists, has been found guilty of a conspiracy over events that led to a deadly mine explosion in West Virginia.
Nine days of jury deliberation, which was put on hold over the Thanksgiving, have resulted in Blankenship being found guilty of a conspiracy to commit safety violations at the mine. But he has been acquitted of charges that he made false statements and committed securities fraud.
An explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010 killed 29 miners. A jury deliberated over the fate of Blankenship for six weeks, hearing testimony from 27 witnesses and sifting through more than 500 pieces of evidence.
Blankenship, 65, is the former chief executive of Massey Energy, a coal company that was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011.
He was charged with three criminal counts over his role in dodging federal mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. He was also accused of committing fraud through a statement sent to shareholders following the mine explosion. He denied all of the charges from the outset.
Federal regulators said a series of unsafe practices led to the explosion, with US attorney Booth Goodwin telling court that "Don Blankenship ran a massive criminal conspiracy". Goodwin said an internal memo shows that Blankenship was aware of measures to make the mines safe but chose to not do so. Blankenship, according to Goodwin, was an "outlaw" who pushed miners to continue extracting coal in hazardous conditions.
Bill Taylor, Blankenship's defence attorney, said the federal government had provided "no witnesses, no proof" to back up its charges. Taylor had moved for a mistrial, arguing that the long distance travel required of jurors and the looming Thanksgiving holiday increased the likelihood of a rushed decision. Judge Irene Berger rejected the request.
Democratic senator for West Virginia Joe Manchin said he was pleased with the verdict.
"With this verdict, the state of West Virginia has set precedents and signaled that we will not allow the prioritization of production and profits over the safety of our workers," he said.
"While nothing can ever bring back the 29 beloved souls who we lost on that tragic day, I hope that today brings some closure and peace to the families of the miners."
The makers of Blood on the Mountain, a new documentary about environmental and economic injustice in West Virginia, also welcomed the outcome.
"This verdict has finally held a coal company executive criminally responsible for his crimes against his own workers for his own greed," said Mari-Lynn Evans, the film's director and producer.
"This guilty verdict affirms our faith in justice, and it will have a tremendous a tremendous and lasting impact on how the coal industry does business. For West Virginians, this verdict affirms that the lives of our coal miners is more important than the cost of a mule."