Wounds reopened as ex-coal chief gets 1 year in prison

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Standing before a federal judge, former coal company executive Don Blankenship expressed sorrow for the families of 29 men killed in his coal mine six years ago and added, almost in the same breath, that he committed no crime.

“I just want to make the point that these men were proud coal miners. They’ve been doing it a long time. And they’d want the truth of what happened there to be known,” Blankenship said Wednesday, drifting into his theory that an act of nature, not negligence, caused the deadly explosion in his mine.

The judge told him to stop talking about the explosion and handed down the stiffest sentence allowed for his misdemeanor conviction: one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Blankenship’s words stung for the families on hand who lost loved ones in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in four decades, and some of them yelled at him as he exited the courthouse into a swarm of TV cameras.

Tommy Davis, who lost three family members in the 2010 tragedy and worked at the mine that day himself, started talking over the reporters and lawyers.

“Hey Don. This is Tom,” his voice cracking. “It’s been six years, six years I missed my son, my brother, my nephew. How come you never came to apologize to me personally? How come you never asked to see me?”

“He ain’t apologized to none of us,” added Robert Atkins, whose son Jason died in the explosion.

“We buried our kid because of you. … That’s all I got is a goddamn tombstone,” Atkins said.

About a half-dozen enforcement officers swarmed around Blankenship and ushered him into a van that drove him away.

One day after the sixth anniversary of the disaster, the sentencing gave families closure and reopened wounds.

A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch. The jury acquitted him of felonies that could have extended his sentence to 30 years.

The trial wasn’t about what caused the explosion, and the judge made that painstakingly clear. U.S. District Judge Irene Berger also ruled that family members couldn’t speak at Wednesday’s sentencing for similar reasons, saying they weren’t eligible for restitution and the cause of the explosion wasn’t up for debate in the case.

At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.

Blankenship disputes those reports. He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.

Blankenship rose from a meager, single-mother Appalachian household to become one of the wealthiest, most influential figures in the region and in the coal industry, and someone who gives back to the community, the judge noted Wednesday.

“Instead of being able to tout you as one of West Virginia’s success stories, however, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy,” Berger said.

During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey’s safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks.

Blankenship’s attorneys believe he shouldn’t have gotten more than a fine and probation, and have promised to appeal. They embraced Blankenship’s image as a tough boss, but countered it by saying he demanded safety and showed commitment to his community, family and employees.

Though Blankenship received the harshest penalties possible for the conspiracy, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, prosecutors and the family members said the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“I miss my family. (Blankenship) hugged his,” Davis said. “And all he gets is a year. (The judge) has done great, she gave him what she can give him. But there need to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life.”

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