December 3, 2015 (Whitesburg, KY)

Today’s guilty verdict in the criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship should serve as a wake up call to the coal industry.

A federal jury found Blankenship guilty of “conspiring with others between January 1st, 2008, and April 9th, 2010, to willfully violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards.” This is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

The jury heard about illegal activity such as falsifying underground dust samples, giving advanced warning before federal mine inspectors arrived in working areas of the mine, and failing to invest in equipment and improvements that would protect miners.

One of Blankenship’s defenses was that because this behavior is widespread in the coal industry, he should not be individually punished.

Dust fraud and other means of evading safety standards are prevalent in the coal industry. Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center regularly hears about the pressure that coal miners face to work in unsafe conditions when we represent mine-safety whistleblowers who have been retaliated against and miners disabled by black lung—a disease that should be eradicated if modern dust protection laws were respected. What stands out about the Blankenship trial was not the illegal acts in the mines, but the personal role of a CEO and the prosecution’s decision to pursue the case with vigor.

The jury was right to reject Blankenship’s “but everybody’s doing it” defense. The verdict should broadcast to coal industry management that business as usual must change—if the resurgence of black lung and horror of disasters such as Upper Big Branch does not wake them up, then perhaps criminal convictions will. The conviction of Blankenship is a start, but justice will not be complete until coal miners can work without fear of death, disease, or discrimination.

For additional information, Evan Smith can be reached at 606.633.3929 x107 or 606.205.8753 or evan@appalachianlawcenter.org