CHARLESTON, W.Va. – To beat charges that he recklessly ignored safety standards before his coal mine blew up, killing 29 men in the industry’s worst disaster in the U.S. in decades, coal executive Don Blankenship will have to overcome reams of evidence painting him as a micromanager.
Prosecutors highlighted Blankenship’s deep day-to-day involvement in a 43-page indictment this week that portrays the former coal company head as a profit-focused bully who insisted on getting daily reports — and sometimes even updates every 30 minutes — at the Upper Big Branch mine, the site of the April 2010 blast.
Corporate prosecutions like the one against Blankenship are rare, because heads of companies can often prove they are far removed from the workings of middle managers and employees. The former Massey Energy CEO is accused of conspiring to violate safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch Mine.
“It’s very easy for a chief executive officer to say credibly and truthfully that he didn’t know everything people at his company were doing,” said Barry J. Pollack, a lawyer in Washington.
It won’t be the first time Blankenship’s management style has come up in court: Massey was sued by relatives of two miners who choked to death on black fumes from a conveyor belt fire at Aracoma Mine No. 1 in 2006 in Logan County, West Virginia. Blankenship’s attorney opened that trial in 2008 by telling the jury that the coal CEO was far removed from the mine’s inner workings, adding that Blankenship “does not belong in this case.”
But Massey ended up halting the trial and paying a settlement to the families after the jury heard a taped deposition of Blankenship revealing that he was getting production reports every two hours and ordered mine personnel to “stay in coal” if possible rather than deal with production problems.
“That’s where he has a problem,” Tony Oppegard, a mine safety lawyer, said of Blankenship in the Upper Big Branch case. “Most coal companies, the CEO is going to be nowhere near that mine. Blankenship is so much different.”
Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement Thursday that Blankenship “is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”
Pollack said federal prosecutors put very detailed allegations in the indictment that came down on Thursday to show that Blankenship knew what his Upper Big Branch mine employees were doing. He could face up to 31 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
In October 2009, the indictment says, when an executive requested approval to pay a contractor $750 to check and test the freeze-proofing systems at Upper Big Branch-group mine, he replied: “Nonsense Giving Money Away.”
In a February 2008 memo on work to meet ventilation standards, Blankenship wrote: “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.”
And in an August 2008 note about controlling costs, he told several Massey mining-group presidents that “children could run these mines better than you all do.”
“His micro-managing may be his undoing in this case,” said Oppegard, a former top lawyer with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Blankenship is scheduled for an initial hearing before a U.S. magistrate judge in Beckley on Nov. 20. The case itself has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley. On Friday, Berger issued an order barring Blankenship, attorneys, prosecutors and court personnel from talking about or issuing documents pertinent to the case.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause of the blast was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.
Four investigations found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno. Blankenship started a blog to push his assertion that the presence of natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.
The indictment notes that Massey was cited for safety violations 835 times from January 2008 until the 2010 explosion. An Associated Press investigation immediately after the blast found that Massey had racked up 600 MSHA violations at Upper Big Branch in less than a year-and-a-half leading up to the explosion.
Lovan reported from Louisville, Kentucky. Associated Press Writer Larry O’Dell contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.