UBB mine disaster: Blankenship trial’s end at hand

BREAKING NEWS – Judge Irene Berger turned Donald L. Blankenship’s case over to the jury who began deliberations around 4 p.m., Nov. 16. No verdict had been reached at end of the day by the time the court recessed until this morning. A verdict could come in as early as today or the jury could deliberate for days, even resulting in a hung-jury. The latter two possibilities seem rather unlikely but what is more likely is that a verdict on all three counts will come in within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. People’s World will keep our readers posted as news on the Blankenship trial breaks.

CHARLESTON, W.V. — In a surprising move the defense team for accused coal criminal, Don Blankenship, rested its case Nov. 16 without presenting any witnesses. It had sought last week to Judge Irene Berger to dismiss the case against Blankenship. Closing arguments should begin Nov. 17.

Blankenship was the former CEO of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch [UBB] Mine at the time when an underground explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010 in Raleigh County, W.V.

This last weekend, I spoke with Dr. Judy Jones-Petersen of Charleston, W.V. whose brother, Edmond Jones, was killed in the 2010 explosion at the UBB mine. Edmond left behind a wife and son to mourn his sudden death. Dr. Petersen has consistently attended the Blankenship trial from its beginning and she gave us invaluably insight into the progress of the trial from the view of a mourning sister.

Dr. Jones seemed confident that the government had put on an excellent case that proved Blankenship’s guilt on all counts. She mentioned being particularly impressed with Bill Ross’s testimony. Mr. Ross had retired from the Mine Health & Safety Administration [MHSA] and upon his retirement he was coaxed to come to work for Massey to help them improve their relationship with MSHA by instructing their foremen in safe mine practices and by supposedly improving safety in the company’s mines.

Ross testified that he had thought he could make a difference, particularly in the area of ventilation, which had been the cause of most of the violations against Massey’s UBB mine. He said that Massey’s management didn’t seem to understand what needed to be done so tried to meet with Blankenship but his recommendations and requests to meet with the company’s CEO fell on deaf ears. Ross had even developed a plan to improve conditions but nothing ever came of that plan. Mr. Ross told the court of Massey’s seeming lack of intent to improve safety in its drive for non-stop production.

The prosecution witness who spent the longest time on the stand and whose testimony ran into November was Chris Blanchard, former president of Performance Coal. Mr. Blanchard testified that it was well know by management that it was cheaper to pay the fines for safety violations than to improve safety conditions. He testified to management’s apparent conspiracy to continue unsafe practices rather than slow production of coal and to hide the mine’s lack of compliance with safe standards.

Miners who had worked at the UBB mine testified that the rock-dusting, necessary to prevent mine explosions, was not properly done, leaving the mine vulnerable for a combination of methane gas, coal dust, and a spark that could lead to the kind of massive underground explosion that caused the deaths of 29 miners. The miners testified that their fire-bosses dismissed their requests for rock-dusting because “there wasn’t enough time.”

It’s not known how the jury will decide, but Blankenship’s attorneys seem to be saying that they believe that the prosecution has failed to present sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, Blankenship’s guilt on all three charges for which he now stands accused. If convicted on all three charges, Blankenship could face over thirty years imprisonment for conspiracy to violate mine safety standards, impairing government inspectors by covering up hazards to the miners’ safety, and making false statements to securities regulators that essentially resulted in securities fraud.

Photo: 29 miners memorial. John Milam/PW



John Milam
John Milam

John Milam has been an activist most of his adult life in unions, community action groups and anti-war groups. He worked as an organizer and servicing staff representative at District 50, UMWA, which later merged with the United Steelworkers. As a Steelworker, he became a Key Staff Rep. for Area 1 (Wheeling-Steubenville) of the old USWA District 23. Milam writes on issues and events that affect miners and steelworkers for Peoplesworld.org.