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Ex-CEO of mine that blew up, killing 29, indicted

November 14, 2014

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (AP) — Don Blankenship, the steely-eyed executive once dubbed “The Dark Lord of Coal Country,” on Thursday became the highest-ranking coal official to face federal charges in the nation’s deadliest mine disaster in 40 years.

A federal grand jury indicted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship Thursday on numerous counts of conspiracy, making him the highest-ranking executive charged in the April 2010 underground explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.

The 43-page indictment said Blankenship “knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing. Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”

His attorney, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement that Blankenship “is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”

Earlier this year, Blankenship sponsored and appeared in a 50-minute documentary titled “Upper Big Branch — Never Again.” In it, he argued that regulators never got to the truth about what happened underground.

But U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the truth is contained in the indictment.

In February 2013, a former longtime subordinate, David Hughart, testified that Blankenship ordered the widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause of the blast was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books - an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.

The explosion prompted federal officials to begin monthly “impact” inspections at problem mines throughout the Appalachian coal region in addition to routine state and federal visits. MSHA said last month that it has conducted 823 “impact” inspections sites and issued more than 13,000 citations since the explosion.

Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $7.1 billion in June 2012. Blankenship retired ahead of the merger.

Four investigations into the disaster found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.

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