Federal prosecutors indicted the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors of a coal company in connection with a 2010 coal mine explosion. United States v. Blankenship, No. 5:14-cr-00244, indictment (S.D.W.V., Nov. 13, 2014). The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) fined Massey Energy Co. nearly $11 million in 2011 for hundreds of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The defendant in the present case was Massey’s CEO and Chairman at the time of the explosion. Prosecutors allege that he knew or should have known about numerous violations and “had the ability to prevent most of” them, but instead “fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations.” Id. at 1.
At about 3:27 p.m. on April 5, 2010, an explosion occurred in the UBB mine, about 1,000 feet underground. Twenty-five miners were apparently killed in the explosion or shortly afterwards, and another four bodies were recovered later. It was described as the worst mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. Attention quickly turned to Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., which operated the UBB mine. In the five years preceding the explosion, the MSHA had reportedly issued 1,342 citations to the mine for safety violations and proposed $1.89 million in fines.
Massey’s competitor Alpha Natural Resources acquired the company in June 2011 and took control of Massey’s assets, including the UBB mine. In December 2011, the MSHA announced that it had issued 369 citations to Massey, through Alpha, and imposed a $10.8 million fine in connection with the UBB mine explosion. The Department of Justice announced on the same day that it had reached a $209 million settlement with Alpha in its criminal investigation of Massey.
The indictment against Blankenship is at least the third criminal prosecution brought against an individual in connect with the UBB mine explosion. A former superintendent at the UBB mine pleaded guilty in January 2013 to one felony count of conspiring to defraud the federal government by interfering with government inspectors, and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. A former Massey executive, who reportedly cooperated with the UBB mine investigation, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for conspiracy in September 2013.
Federal prosecutors are accusing Blankenship of allowing UBB to violate safety regulations prior to the explosion, conspiring to impede the MSHA from inspecting the mine, and making false representations to federal regulators, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). They must prove that the defendant had direct involvement in and control over decisions relating to safety compliance at the UBB mine, that the statements he made were false, and that he knew or should have known that they were false. Charges include conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety regulations, 30 U.S.C. § 820(d), 18 U.S.C. § 371; conspiracy to defraud the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 371; false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1001(a)(2), (3); and securities fraud, 15 U.S.C. § 78ff, 17 C.F.R. § 240.10b-5.
For over 20 years, criminal defense lawyer Michael J. Brown has defended the rights of his clients in state and federal criminal cases in west Texas. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced advocate, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.
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Photo credit: Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.