Ex-coal baron readies for trial in deadly mine explosion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Don Blankenship ascended from a modest, single-mother upbringing in Appalachia to personally make almost $20 million off coal in one year. He battled unions, spent millions as lead puppeteer behind Republican state politics and fought regulators over safety and environmental rules, which his mines often broke.

The headstrong former CEO of Massey Energy has never shied from a fight, but his toughest one yet begins Thursday when he goes on trial in the worst U.S. mine disaster in 45 years.

Blankenship, 65, faces up to three decades in prison if convicted over how he ran the Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine health and safety requirements in hundreds of violations at Upper Big Branch. When federal inspectors would arrive at the mine’s entrance, a worker at a guardhouse would radio the office, which would alert underground miners so they could cover up violations, the indictment said. Because of how big the mine was, workers at the farthest reaches could have a two-hour warning.

Blankenship is also charged with lying to stockholders and federal financial regulators about Massey’s safety practices.

Prosecutors have produced memos, testimony and other evidence they say show Blankenship prioritized profits over safety measures that could have saved lives. Prosecutors also may pick from the 1,800 to 1,900 recordings from audio recorders Blankenship secretly installed at his Massey office.

Slapping a coal executive with the kind of charges Blankenship faces is rare.

“I’m not sure anyone can tell you that there’s been a specific case where anyone had gone to the scope or the scale of what Blankenship’s accused of,” said Paul Rakes, a West Virginia University Institute of Technology history professor who researches coal.

In 1906, mine operators faced manslaughter indictments after a Fayette County, West Virginia, mine exploded and killed 23 people, but the case was tossed.

This February, Dickson Lee, former CEO of China-based coal company L&L Energy, received a five-year prison sentence in the U.S. over securities fraud. The charges weren’t related to safety.