It’s one of the biggest safety disasters in recent memory. Now federal prosecutors have gone to the top to hold a company official responsible for conditions that led to workers’ deaths. And the CEO’s habit of micromanaging the company’s operations may come back to bite him.
A federal grand jury has handed up a four-count indictment against former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that claimed the lives of 29 miners.
The charges allege Blankenship was responsible for widespread violations of safety regulations and deceiving federal mine safety inspectors. The indictment claims he ignored hundreds of safety violations to produce more coal and make more money. Specifically, the indictment details how laws about ventilating coal dust and methane gas at the mine weren’t followed. It’s also alleged that safety staffing was cut under Blankenship’s watch.
Federal investigators had previously determined it was the combination of coal dust and methane that ignited on April 5, 2010, killing the miners.
Blankenship, 64, faces a maximum of 31 years in prison – potentially putting him in prison for the rest of his life.
Two other former Massey managers, including a former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine, have pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
Unusual prosecution of CEO
Legal experts are calling this type of prosecution of a company CEO unusual. It’s often easier to prove that other on-site managers and supervisors who had day-to-day control of operations violated regulations than proving a top company official did.
But an article in the West Virginia Gazette says Blankenship’s hands-on management style made it possible for prosecutors to go after him.
Example: Blankenship wanted reports every 30 minutes on coal production at Upper Big Branch. A mine safety advocate interviewed by the Gazette says the demand for such reports by a mine company CEO is unheard of.
The Gazette reports that federal prosecutors “are hoping to use this management style to give them exactly the kind of evidence they need to obtain a conviction.”
To make their case stick, prosecutors will have to prove Blankenship was an “operator” of the mine.
His trial may be many months if not a year away.
Blankenship retired from Massey about eight months after the mine disaster. The mine’s new owner, Alpha Natural Resources, agreed to pay $209 million in criminal penalties to settle with the Department of Justice.