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Rare Corporate Prosecution: West Virginia’s “King of Coal” Sentenced for Conspiracy in Mine Deaths

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, conspired to “willfully violate mandatory mine health and safety standards” to maximize his personal profits, and on April 5, 2010, an explosion attributed to safety violations claimed the lives of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. According to a federal safety inspection report, the workers might have survived “if basic safety measures had been in place.” Blankenship was not charged with or convicted of causing the explosion; rather, on December 3, 2015, after a six-week trial, the “King of Coal” was found guilty of one misdemeanor for conspiring to violate mine safety rules.

Had Blankenship killed those 29 miners with a handgun, he would have faced life imprisonment or the death penalty. Instead, exactly six years and a day after his failure to ensure safe working conditions at the Upper Big Branch Mine, resulting in 29 deaths, he was sentenced to a year in prison, a $250,000 fine and one year of supervised release – the maximum allowable punishment that U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger could impose.

Many family members of the dead miners attended Blankenship’s trial and subsequent sentencing, and were devastated by his lenient punishment. As the disgraced former CEO left the courthouse, Annette Workman, who lost her husband in the mine tragedy, shouted, “Did you ever go down in that mine?” Tommy Davis, a relative of three miners who were killed, yelled, “You don’t have a heart; you don’t miss your kids like we miss ours!”

On May 12, 2016, Blankenship surrendered to the Federal Correctional Institution-Taft in California. He has appealed his conviction, which represents one of the very few times that a corporate executive has been prosecuted on charges related to workers’ deaths.


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