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'King of Coal' Gets One Year in Prison for Deadly Mine Disaster That Killed 29

Disgraced coal baron Don Blankenship received the maximum possible sentence Wednesday for his misdemeanor conspiracy conviction, in a criminal case spurred by the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia in 2009.

Blankenship was acquitted in December of three felony charges over his direct personal responsibility for those deaths. But he was convicted on conspiracy to violate federal mining safety standards. And yesterday, federal judge handed down a sentence of one year in prison, plus a year of probation and a fine of $250,000 for Blankenship's crimes.

Had he been convicted of all charges, Blankenship would have faced a maximum of more than 30 years.

"Don Blankenship killed those 29 men with greed as surely as if he had fired a gun at them," said environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. "He is a sinister creature of unrestrained capitalism."

For over a quarter century, Blankenship ruled with an iron fist as the notoriously aggressive former head of Massey Energy, one of the nation's largest coal mining companies.

Blankenship was appointed CEO of Massey after successfully waging a campaign to beat back a major strike in 1984-85—and proceeded to deliberately circumvent the most basic of federal mining safety rules, prosecutors argued. His hands-on approach meant that he was personally involved in helping mine managers dodge federal safety inspectors, federal prosecutors argued when Blankenship was indicted.

Blankenship had emerged triumphant from the courtroom following his acquittal on the felony charges, The New York Times reported in December, dropping a wink at reporters outside the courthouse. His legal team had asked the court for clemency, telling U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, the daughter of a coal miner, that probation would suffice to deter other energy companies from similar conduct.

In court, Blankenship continued to rebuff accountability. “I am not guilty of a crime,” he told the judge at one point.

Following the sentencing, the scene outside the courtroom was emotional, as those who lost family grappled with a mix of vindication from the fact that Blankenship would serve time in jail and frustration at the former executive's refusal to take personal responsibility for the catastrophe.

“For six years, he never apologized,” a tearful Tommy Davis, whose son, brother and nephew died at Upper Big Branch and who was himself a former miner,” told Bloomberg. “He’s got family to hug him. I’ve got tombstones.”

Blankenship had briefly tried to re-insert himself into the debate over energy policy briefly after his indictment, remaining among the ranks of climate-deniers. “Record low temperatures are freezing the Global Warming movement,” one of his most recent tweets, from November 2014, reads. “Hope @BarackObama notices that Climate Science is not settled.”

But his political influence was already waning amid a judicial corruption scandal and the waning economic might of a struggling coal mining industry. “Most of the candidates don't want contributions from me because it gets too much negative publicity,” he told the Wall Street Journal two years earlier.

The criminal case against Blankenship was tried in federal court—meaning that his criminal appeals will be heard by federal justices, rather than reaching the state's higher courts, which have been rocked by judicial corruption scandals related to Blankenship's other business activities (corruption so blatant that it prompted a rebuke from the U.S. Supreme Court, which normally gives state courts wide latitude to police themselves).

As DeSmog previously reported:

“We decided the now $75 million Massey Energy case in less than 60 seconds. (Honest!)” an infuriated Justice Starcher wrote in his diary the night the case was decided, [Laurence] Leamer reveals [in The Price of Justice, an epic narrative biography of Blankenship published in 2013]. Calling the decision obviously decided in advanced, Starcher continued “Benjamin and Maynard are buddies with Don Blankenship and Robin kisses their butts to keep them ‘with her husband’ on his cases. The ‘good ole boy’ system rules the day.”

Caperton was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, with Caperton’s lawyers arguing that “some in West Virginia wondered aloud whether Massey had 'b[ought] itself a judge.'”

The prosecution of an energy CEO for misconduct on his watch is extraordinarily rare, reflecting dogged efforts by prosecutors. As DeSmog reported when Blankenship was first indicted, prosecutors pursued the case for years to reach Blankenship himself:

“For several years now, [R. Booth] Goodwin has systematically worked his way up Massey’s hierarchy, convicting not only low-level supervisors, but also executives higher and higher within the corporate hierarchy. Goodwin has based his prosecutions on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations, which means he can reach further up into the corporate structure. So far, Mr. Goodwin has convicted four people within the company's leadership including the Upper Big Branch mine superintendent who admitted he disabled a methane monitor and falsified mine records. And while lower-ranking supervisors received sentences measured in months, Blankenship's closest subordinate was sentenced to three and a half years for his role in the tragedy.”

Yesterday's sentence drew a mixed reaction from Goodwin, who is now running for governor of West Virginia.

“While his crimes against the citizens of West Virginia deserve a more severe punishment, I am pleased that the judge sentenced Don Blankenship to the maximum one year in prison,” Goodwin, former U.S. Attorney, said in a statement. “The investigation most certainly made mines and workplaces safer. This maximum sentence sends a clear, powerful message that a corrupt corporate executive cannot gamble with workers’ lives and get away with it.”

For other observers, the outcome of the criminal case reflected only the smallest modicum of justice.

“I think that the fact he could only be convicted on misdemeanor charges is an indicator that the coal industry still holds plenty of sway,” Mike Plante, a Democratic political strategist told DeSmog. “If Mr. Blankenship had done with a gun what he did with his contempt for safety regulations he’d be facing the electric chair or life in prison.”

Watch this video of Davis outside the courthouse after Blankenship's sentencing:

Mary Anne Hitt, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, released the following statement:

“Some measure of justice has finally caught up with Don Blankenship and his sentencing today will add to the growing chorus of coal communities demanding that industry executives must be held accountable when their decisions destroy people’s lives—whether it be from safety violations or continuing to destroy their land, air, water and health.

“Today’s sentence comes on the day after the six year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and we hope it gives some solace to the families of the 29 miners who lost their lives in 2010. Our thoughts are with them today.”

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