Fighting the union, building the company
The story of Don Blankenship’s criminal trial starts in the mid-1980s. Blankenship was running A.T. Massey Coal’s Rawl Sales and Processing unit in Mingo County. He led the operation through a bitter strike by the United Mine Workers union.
Blankenship called himself “the most hated man in Mingo County,” but said that the UMW had “gotten too powerful” and that it was “time people realized they don’t have to be slaves of the union any longer.”
Massey emerged from the strike as a mostly non-union company. Within a decade, Blankenship was CEO of the company and was helping to build it into a major regional coal producer. Through the 1990s, with low-sulfur Southern West Virginia coal in high demand, Massey was among the pioneers pushing mountaintop removal mining and was consolidating large blocks of coal previously mined by union firms. By 2000, Massey had gone public and Blankenship’s economic and political power was continuing to increase.
Politics and coal production
Blankenship began using his personal wealth to try to push his own political agenda, which called for less government interference in the way his company ran its coal mines.
In 2004, he spent millions of dollars of his own money to defeat the re-election bid of a state Supreme Court justice he viewed as hostile. Two years later, he spent millions more trying to engineer a Republican takeover of the West Virginia Legislature.
The Supreme Court candidate who benefited from Blankenship’s spending, Brent Benjamin, would later cast a deciding vote between Massey and independent coal operator Hugh Caperton. The U.S. Supreme Court then threw out that verdict, ruling that Benjamin should have recused himself. Justice Spike Maynard also recused himself from that case after pictures surfaced of him on vacation with Blankenship in the French Riviera.
Safety and the environment
Massey’s record on worker safety and environmental protection was a constant issue under Blankenship’s leadership.
Two Massey subsidiaries were prosecuted for water pollution crimes and two for workplace safety crimes. In 2008, Massey paid what was then a record $20 million fine for permit violations under the federal Clean Water Act.
But in each instance, Blankenship escaped being held personally accountable for Massey’s deeds.
Then came Upper Big Branch.
Just after 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County.
Twenty-nine miners died.
It was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in a generation. Four government and independent investigations blamed the disaster on a pattern of violations by Massey of key safety standards, including proper mine ventilation, control of the buildup of explosive dust, and maintenance of equipment to prevent sparks that could set off a blast.
Climbing the corporate ladder
Massey’s safety record began being scrutinized more closely than ever before, and an unprecedented criminal probe began. Four Massey employees were convicted or pleaded guilty to various criminal charges.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin promised his staff would follow the evidence wherever it took them.
On Nov. 13, 2014, a federal grand jury meeting in Charleston indicted Blankenship, charging him with four criminal counts. A superseding indictment was later filed that combined two of the counts. Blankenship faces charges that he conspired to violate federal mine safety standards and to hide those violations from government inspectors and that he lied to federal securities regulators about Massey’s safety practices to try to stop the company’s stock prices from plummeting after the disaster.
Jury selection for his trial began on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015.