Don Blankenship

CHARLESTON —  Citing a “practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws, and [to] make more money,” a federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment on Thursday, alleging that Don Blankenship, former chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors of Massey Energy Co., contributed to the conditions at the Upper Big Branch-South Mine that led to the explosion that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners at the mine near Montcoal on April 5, 2010.

Count one of the indictment alleges that “Blankenship, together with others known and unknown to the grand jury, unlawfully, willfully and knowingly combined, conspired, confederated and agreed together with each other for Blankenship and Massey, as operators of UBB, to willfully violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at UBB,” in violation of federal laws.

Count two alleges that Blankenship, Massey and others conspired to hinder the administration of federal mining laws at UBB. Counts three and four allege that Blankenship made a materially false statement: “We [Massey] do not condone any violation of MSHA regulations” and : “We strive to be in compliance with all regulations at all times.” The statements were contained in a filing to the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).

The 43-page indictment alleges among other things that Blankenship and Massey violated the mine’s ventilation plan, allowing coal dust and fines to build up in the mine and on conveyor belts from the mine’s longwall mining system resulting in numerous violations discovered at the mine by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors who wrote 835 citations for violations between Jan 2008 and April 5, 2010, with about 59 of those violations relating to the mine’s ventilation system.

“Among the causes of these violations were the employment of an inadequate number of coal miners and the imposition and enforcement of coal-production quotas that did not allow time to conduct required safety examinations in a mine the size of UBB,” according to the indictment. The indictment also alleged that approximately 81 violations related to “the mandatory federal mine safety standard requiring that coal dust, loose coal and combustible materials be cleaned up and not permitted to accumulate.”

The indictment alleges that “Known UBB Executive along with other UBB officials known and unknown to the grand jury,” knew about the problems, but noted that the “aggressive enforcement of coal-production quotas ... did not allow enough time to perform” work that would correct the violations. The indictment alleged further that it “was standard practice for an employee in the mine office to call underground” when MSHA inspectors arrived at the mine and warn supervisors underground.

“Underground supervisors then would direct miners to quickly cover up violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards that the mine routinely committed including missing ventilation control structures and devices, accumulations of float coal dust and loose coal, missing roof support and failures to properly rock dust the mine,” according to the indictment.

The indictment alleges that during the time period from January 2008 to April 5, 2010, Blankenship received reports on all of his mining operations including UBB where he was “receiving a report every 30 minutes detailing the longwall section’s coal production and the reasons for any production delays.” In addition, the indictment alleged that: “Throughout the indictment period, Blankenship insisted on personally reviewing and approving or denying every proposed hire at UBB, every proposal to give a UBB employee a raise, every capital expenditure at UBB and every hiring of a contractor to perform work at UBB.”

The indictment includes several alleged incidents involving Blankenship’s direct control of the mine as related by “Known UBB Executive.” The indictment includes several quotes of alleged exchanges between Blankenship and Known UBB Executive chastising the executive for “letting MSHA run his mines,” and pointing out: “Please be reminded that your core job is to make money. To do this, you have to run coal at low cost, ship your orders and control your quality.” The indictment alleges that Blankenship threatened his management to watch their profit and loss statements: “everyday because I’m looking to make an example out of somebody and I don’t mean embarrassment.”

The indictment alleges that Blankenship paid Known UBB Executive $450,000 for running the UBB mining group, while Blankenship himself earned $17.8 million for the same year that Executive received $450,000.

The indictment includes the UBB Shareholders statement that states: “Media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was a result of willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded,” and includes the statement alleged in counts three and four about complying with MSHA regulations all the time.

According to a press release issued by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia, Blankenship could be sentenced to as much as 31 years in federal prison if convicted of all four counts of the indictment.

U’S. Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., issued the following statement after learning of the indictment. “I’ve always had complete faith that justice would be served and Don Blankenship’s indictment today is a first step in providing some peace to the families of the Upper Big Branch miners who lost their lives.”

In addition to Goodwin, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Ruby presented the case to the grand jury.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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