Notorious Coal Baron Don Blankenship Sentenced to a Year in Prison

Pete Marovich/ZUMA


A federal judge in West Virginia sentenced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to a year in prison on Wednesday for conspiring to commit mine safety violations at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine during a period leading up to the explosion there that left 29 miners dead in 2010.

The mountaintop estate where Blankenship once hosted visitors. Read MoJo‘s chronicle of Blankenship’s rise and fall in West Virginia. Stacy Kranitz

Blankenship was convicted of the misdemeanor charge in December, but the conviction was explicitly not linked to the Upper Big Branch disaster itself and Blankenship’s attorney worked hard to ensure the accident was hardly mentioned during the trial. And that verdict was a disappointment to prosecutors; he was found not guilty of the more serious felony charges of making false statements to federal regulators in the aftermath of the blast in order to boost Massey’s stock price. (Had he been convicted on all counts, he would have faced up to 30 years in prison.) The conspiracy conviction rested on evidence of Blankenship’s domineering management style, which emphasized profits over the federal mine safety laws designed to avert underground explosions:

[T]he attention to detail that made Blankenship such an effective bean counter may also be his undoing. He constantly monitored every inch of his operation and wrote memos instructing subordinates to move coal at all costs. “I could Krushchev you,” he warned in a handwritten memo to one Massey official whose facilities Blankenship thought were underperforming. He called another mine manager “literally crazy” and “ridiculous” for devoting too many of his miners to safety projects. Despite repeated citations by the MSHA, Blankenship instructed Massey executives to postpone safety improvements: “We’ll worry about ventilation or other issues at an appropriate time. Now is not the time.” And this is only what investigators gleaned from the documents they could find: Hughie Stover, Blankenship’s bodyguard and personal driver—and the head of security at Upper Big Branch—ordered a subordinate to destroy thousands of pages of documents, while the government’s investigation was ongoing. (Stover was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy evidence.)

Before he stepped down as Massey’s CEO in 2010, Blankenship had built the company into one of the largest coal producers in the United States and become a polarizing figure in his home state, where he bankrolled the rise of the Republican Party, pushed climate denial, and crushed unions. For more on Blankenship, read my piece from the magazine on his rise and fall.

THANK YOU.

We recently wrapped up the crowdfunding campaign for our ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project, and it was a smashing success. About 10,364 readers pitched in with donations averaging $45, and together they contributed about $467,374 toward our $500,000 goal.

That's amazing. We still have donations from letters we sent in the mail coming back to us, so we're on pace to hit—if not exceed—that goal. Thank you so much. We'll keep you posted here as the project ramps up, and you can join the hundreds of readers who have alerted us to corruption to dig into.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.