Don Blankenship got out of jail this week and instead of taking the path of penitence after a year of quiet contemplation, he went right back on the warpath.
Blankenship, you may recall, was the CEO of Massey Energy who was convicted in 2015 of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 coal miners.
Now he’s appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court, according to Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette, who explains what all the fuss is about:
Investigations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and the United Mine Workers union agreed that the mine disaster was caused by a longtime pattern of safety violations by Massey and by Blankenship’s insistence that the company put coal production and profits ahead of safety protections for miners.
Despite the evidence assembled in the four investigations, Blankenship continues to insist on his innocence and that the explosion was an “Act of God,” insisting that an unavoidable inundation of natural gas — and not methane gas and excess coal dust — caused the explosion. The reports dismissed that argument, as described here in a report from the United Mineworkers:
“Given the overall poor condition of the mine in general, it is not believable that management personnel did not know that these conditions posed a substantial and immediate hazard to the miners and could possibly escalate into a catastrophic event,” the report emphasized. “Massey’s knowledge of the hazardous conditions is confirmed by the practice at the mine of keeping two sets of record books. One set was for Massey’s eyes only, that documented the actual conditions, and the other an official record which concealed the truth.”
The report details the seemingly endless citations issued to the mine in the months and years leading up to the explosion. One month before the accumulated coal dust fueled the deadly blast, mine examiners reported the need for rock dust over 560 times, but management responded to only 65 of these. “MSHA rock dust surveys demonstrate that Massey failed to maintain the incombustible content of the float coal dust at legal levels,” the report also notes. In addition, West Virginia mine inspectors issued “over a dozen violations for ‘cleaning or rock-dusting’ in the eight months of 2009 that an inspector was at the mine. Six additional violations were issued for these conditions in the first quarter of 2010.”
While Blankenship should consider himself lucky for winning acquittal of felonies that could have put him in jail for 30 years, after one year in prison, he doesn’t seem to be repenting or contemplating the error of his ways. And worse, he seems to have gained a new role-model: Tweeter-in-Chief Donald Trump.
In what the Huffington Post called a “twitter meltdown,” Blankenship has fired off 27 tweets in the last 2 1/2 days, mostly criticizing former MSHA head Joe Main and challenging West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to a
duel debate about what caused the UBB explosion.
— Don Blankenship (@DonBlankenship) May 11, 2017
Blankenship has even asked Trump to re-examine MSHA’s UBB report, urging him to appoint a new MSHA director that would “’get the union mindset out of there,’” an apparent reference to Obama MSHA chief Joe Main, who had previously been safety director for the United Mine Workers.”
Manchin, meanwhile, had recommended that Blankenship disappear.
“Don, you don’t have to answer to me and you don’t have to answer to federal authorities anymore, but you do have to answer to the families of the loved ones who lost their lives in the mine,” Manchin said. “You’re going to have to answer to them the rest of your life.”
Manchin said he will not respond directly to Blankenship’s criticism or request to debate. Instead, he urged Blankenship to stop posting about his claim of innocence to social media.
“You should do the right thing,” Manchin said. “Just be quiet. Disappear. Leave these poor people alone in peace.”
Blankenship’s tweets follow his 67-page booklet that he wrote in prison about his supposedly unfair treatment at the hands of the government, calling himself a political prisoner.
He seems to have an uphill battle ahead of him in the Supreme Court:
Blankenship’s legal team has argued that the indictment against Blankenship didn’t properly outline the mine safety violations at issue, that Berger wrongly denied the defense the chance for a second cross-examination of a major government witness, and that Berger had incorrectly instructed the jury about the prosecution’s burden of proof. The central argument in their appeal, though, was that Berger was wrong to instruct the jury that Blankenship’s “reckless disregard” of federal mine safety and health standards amounted to criminal willfulness needed for a conviction.
In January, the 4th Circuit upheld Blankenship’s conviction, in the process turning down arguments from coal industry trade groups, including the West Virginia Coal Association, that the prosecution of Blankenship amounted to criminalizing the “tough decisions” that mining executives have to make weighing “production, safety and regulatory compliance.”
Meanwhile, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), who expressed concern two years ago that Blankenship was only sentenced to one year in prison for a misdemeanor, called for passage of the “The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, which would increase criminal penalties. Scott, who is Ranking Member of he House Education and Workforce Committee, stated that Blankenship’s release after just one year
“should serve as a reminder that the criminal provisions in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 remain woefully inadequate. The maximum penalty for the willful violation of a mandatory health and safety standard is a mere misdemeanor – rather than a felony – regardless of the number of miners killed because of criminally reckless conduct.”
The Department of Labor’s Upper Big Branch report can be found here.
TheWest Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training report can be found here.
J. Davitt McAtteer’s Report to the Governor can be found here.