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Coal CEO convicted in 29 mine deaths, could spend year in prison

A West Virginia jury has convicted Donald Blankenship of one count in connection to the mine explosion at Upper Big Branch in 2010 that killed 29 miners. Now, Blankenship could go to prison.

Blankenship, 65, was convicted of the misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety. The maximum prison sentence for the crime is one year. Blankenship is free until at least his sentencing on March 23, 2016. He had faced up to 31 years in prison if convicted of all counts against him. Even half that amount could have equated to a life sentence, given his age.

Prosecutors said that as the chief executive of Massey Energy Company, Blankenship put profits above workers’ safety.

His lawyers say they will appeal. In what some call a risky move, after the government presented its case against Blankenship, the defense rested without calling one witness.

Blankenship becomes the most prominent American coal executive ever convicted of a charge related to the deaths of miners. Legal experts called the prosecution of Blankenship highly unusual, noting that it’s often easier to prove other on-site managers who had day-to-day control of operations violated regulations, rather than showing a chief executive was responsible.

While he was convicted of one charge, Blankenship was acquitted of making false statements and securities fraud.

Over the years, Massey had accumulated thousands of safety citations at its mines. But Blankenship’s lawyers said he approved investments that improved safety and urged lower ranking officials at the company to work toward reducing violations.

Two other Massey managers, including a former superintendent of U.B.B., pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Authorities granted immunity to the president of the Massey subsidiary that ran U.B.B., Christopher Blanchard, who then testified for the prosecution.

The 29 miners died following an explosion that occurred after flammable gases, including methane and coal dust, had been allowed to accumulate in the mine.

Prosecutors’ case depended on an argument that Blankenship was a micro-manager, who kept track of his mines by requiring reports every half hour.  Specifically, the federal grand jury indictments against Blankenship detailed how regulations about ventilating coal dust and methane gas at the mine weren’t followed.

Analysis: The conviction of Blankenship constitutes a bit of a turnaround in a week when the government decided to drop remaining criminal charges in connection with the BP Deepwater Horizon blast in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 employees. While few criminal charges against BP managers stuck, prosecutors in Blankenship’s case pierced the corporate veil when it comes to holding C-suite occupants responsible for worker safety.

What do you think about the developments this week in the Massey and BP cases? Let us know in the comments.

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