Ever since the horrific deaths of 29 mine workers at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, I've been wondering how long it would take to impose criminal penalties on the company (Massey Energy is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources).
Given the enormous power and influence that coal companies still wield in West Virginia, I didn't expect much. After all, while a 2011 Mine Safety and Health Administration report explicitly blamed safety violations at the mine for allowing coal dust and methane gas to collect and ignite, it wasn't until November 2014 that former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was indicted on four criminal counts by a federal grand jury. (Two of several prior blogposts on the Massey situation can be found here and here.)
As Alan Blinder wrote in today's New York Times (full article, here):
The prosecution of Mr. Blankenship was one of extraordinary political, legal and emotional significance in West Virginia, a state where many residents have long believed that coal companies and their leaders faced only cursory scrutiny.
Alpha Natural Resources had agreed four years ago to a $209 million settlement in civil and criminal penalties with the Justice Department, Some of that money ($46.5 million) was earmarked for the families of the miners who died. The settlement protected Alpha executives, but not Massey executives, from prosecution.
Yesterday, Blankenship was convicted on one of those four counts -- the misdemeanor of conspiring to violate federal safety standards, to be sure, rather than any of the felonies. Question: Why is a conspiracy to violate federal safety standards only a misdemeanor?
As Blinder wrote,
Mr. Blankenship was not tried on any charges that accused him of direct responsibility for the deaths at Upper Big Branch.... But prosecutors argued that his leadership had laid the groundwork for catastrophe. There was not necessarily a formal conspiracy, prosecutors acknowledged, but they said that Mr. Blankenship's example and tone had set Massey on a course that put profits ahead of lives.Massey had, under Blankenship's "leadership", collected thousands of citations for violations of safety standards. Blinder noted,
His lawyers are nonetheless "disappointed" with the verdict, and are planning an appeal. Me, I'm disappointed that he was only convicted on one count. But I agree with Blinder that this trial was of "extraordinary political, legal and emotional significance", so a disappointing outcome is actually OK.
Blinder quoted a West Virginia University law professor: "A century of mine disasters and failing to hold coal company executives responsible is over."
Dear God, I hope so.