December 4, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship concluded this week with jurors finding him guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch coal mine was the scene of the worst US mine disaster in 40 years when 29 men were killed in a massive coal dust explosion on April 5, 2010.

US Attorney Booth Goodwin—who managed the team of investigators and lawyers who brought the successful case—said:

“The evidence overwhelmingly showed an enterprise that embraced safety crimes as a business strategy. It was reprehensible, and the jury saw it for what it was. Time and time again the defendant chose to put profits over safety. He got rich and the coal miners who worked for him paid the price. This is the first time that I am aware of that the chief executive officer of a major corporation has been convicted of a workplace safety crime.”

As I have been doing over the course of the nine-week trial, here are some of my favorite quotes from this, the final week of the proceeding.

The Charleston Gazette’s David Gutman reported on the reaction from family members whose loved ones died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. The father of Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, reacted this way to the verdict:

“I’m very well-pleased. I didn’t think he was going to get anything; that’s what I was worried about.”

The sister of Dean Jones, 50, said:

“Don Blankenship, you now wear the cloak of criminal shame.”

The wife of Michael Elswick, 56, remarked:

“It doesn’t bring my husband back, but I wonder how his wife and kids are going to feel when he has to go away.”

Over these past nine weeks, I’ve relied on the exceptional reporting of the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. to provide updates direct from the courtroom. In “The Don Blankenship Verdict” on Coal Tattoo, Ward offers his reflections on the case. Ward notes that some may dismiss the verdict because it is a misdemeanor, not a felony. He says it is worth remembering:

“that Congress has decided that the policy of this country is that willfully violating the federal standards intended to protect the health and safety of coal miners is a misdemeanor. …Goodwin and Ruby [the US attorneys] can’t change that. But there are a few West Virginians who can: Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito…and Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins.”

Ward goes on:

“In our paper today, though, you didn’t see any sign from any of those elected officials that even talking about that issue was something they wanted to do. … West Virginia political leaders can certainly rush to defend the coal companies from any potential new regulations, but when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to find them really in any big hurry to do much of consequence to hold the executives who run those companies accountable for their safety practices.”

And Ward closes with this:

“But until the state’s political leaders and its people catch up to the jury on one simple notion — that running a coal company where violating safety laws is part of the business model is a serious crime — nothing here is really going to change.”

Amen.

Here’s a brief snapshot of the 29 men who were killed at the Upper Big Branch mine.

 

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