For the first time in the industry's long, bloody history, an American coal baron is going to prison in connection with the deaths of his miners.
A federal judge in West Virginia sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for conspiring to violate mine safety laws ahead of the worst US mine disaster in decades. Blankenship's sentence came down a day after West Virginians marked the anniversary of that 2010 explosion, which killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch shaft south of Charleston.
"Putting the former chief executive officer of a major corporation in prison sends a message that violating mine safety laws is a serious crime, and those who break those laws will be held accountable," Carol Casto, the acting US attorney in Charleston, said in a written statement on the sentencing.
Blankenship had long railed against federal safety rules, and his mines racked up long lists of violations. In court papers, prosecutors argued Blankenship "made a conscious, cold-blooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him."
"Although already fabulously wealthy by the time of the criminal conspiracy of which he stands convicted, Defendant's greed was such that he would willfully imperil his workers' survival to further fatten his bank account," they wrote.
The prison term and $250,000 fine handed down Wednesday was the maximum allowable on the misdemeanor charge. A year in prison is "woefully insufficient," but anything less "could only be interpreted as a declaration that mine safety laws are not to be taken seriously," prosecutors argued.
Blankenship was acquitted of other charges in December's verdict that could have resulted in several years behind bars. His lawyers argued that probation and a fine were enough punishment for a man they said "cares deeply about his family, his community, and the people who worked for him." They cited more than 100 letters from people who recounted his support for schools, parks, and cultural centers in struggling Appalachia.
Blankenship retired with a multi-million-dollar exit package at the end of 2010, as Massey prepared to be sold to the now-bankrupt Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha later paid more than $200 million to settle claims related to the Upper Big Branch disaster, including $1.5 million to each victim's family and tens of millions in penalties and safety improvements.
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