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Don Blankenship indicted on counts related to the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster

On Thursday, November 13, 2014, Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO, was indicted on numerous counts of conspiracy related to the April 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners.[1] The 43-page indictment alleges that Blankenship knew of hundreds of safety violations every year and also that he had the ability to prevent many of the violations that the UBB mine was committing.[2] As quoted on page 73 in the UMWA’s UBB Report, one of Massey Energy’s employees was interviewed in Vanity Fair, and expressing ““…his amazement in learning, soon after arriving at Massey, that Don had to sign off on a tankful of gas for the manager’s truck.” [3] Blankenship has been blamed for overlooking these safety violations in order to produce more coal, decrease safety costs, and make more money.[4] Blankenship infamously sent his “run coal” memo in October 2005 which stated “if any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (ie – build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” [5]

Of course, in a criminal proceeding, all defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Don Blankenship’s situation is no different. With that being said, the facts however tend to point towards a conclusion that the mine disaster was avoidable, if nothing else. Accumulated methane gas and coal dust ignited, and subsequently exploded causing the mine to collapse and kill 29 miners trapped deep underground.[6] A 2011 federal investigation by the mine safety agency concluded that the explosion was preventable and issued 369 citations.[7] Additionally, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in 2011, paid $209 million in criminal penalties to settle with the Department of Justice. Furthermore, and possibly the most telling of the details surrounding the indictment, two subordinates of Mr. Blankenship, including a former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine, have plead guilty in criminal cases related to the disaster.[8] Under the current indictment, Mr. Don Blankenship faces a maximum of 31 years of imprisonment.[9]

The indictment also says that throughout the period from 2008-2009, Blankenship himself closely managed the Upper Big Branch South mine, the coal from which was critical to Massey’s financial performance.[10] As of now, the indictment is simply a formal accusation against Mr. Blankenship. However, if the elements of the indictment are proven in a court of law, and Mr. Blankenship is found guilty by a jury of his peers, hopefully the families affected by this unspeakable disaster can begin to feel a sense of closure regarding the terrible incident.

The Berthold Law Firm proudly represented the family of an UBB miner killed in the 2010 accident. As is frequently emphasized by our firm in our blogs, the safety and personal welfare of West Virginia’s hard working men and women is and should always be the primary focus in any industry. We firmly believe that industry, particularly the energy industry, has great potential to benefit West Virginia if these standards are maintained.

[2] Id.
[3] See Industrial Homicide Report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster by the United Mine Workers of America. (
[5] See UMWA Report at page 140.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.