For the families of 29 dead miners in the coal fields of West Virginia, the criminal charges were too long in coming.
The notorious former head of then Richmond-based Massey Energy was indicted by a grand jury in Charleston last week on four counts of violating federal mine safety and securities laws.
For more than a decade, Donald L. Blankenship — a demanding, micro-managing boss — enjoyed playing lightning rod for controversy while he busted unions, ripped the tops off mountains and ordered his workers to ignore safety rules, according to investigations and the indictments.
It all came to a head on the afternoon of April 5, 2010, at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.
Inspectors had cited Massey 937 times for hazardous conditions, such as not keeping down explosive coal dust. A small methane fire touched off a gigantic dust explosion so powerful it ripped through seven miles of underground shafts, decapitating some miners and suffocating others.
Tommy Davis, who survived, happened to be leaving the mine at the time. He lost his son, his brother and his nephew in what was the country's worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. "The Massey people, they are sons of bitches," Davis told me, for a 2012 book I wrote about the coal firm, "Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal."
Blankenship wouldn't talk with me for the book, but I did interview him in 2002 for a magazine story. Meeting at Massey's tomblike headquarters building at Fourth and Main streets, the dour-faced Blankenship gave me what I wanted — permission to visit a Massey mine. A few weeks later I was five miles in a Southwest Virginia mountain.
Blankenship was contradictory. He was gleeful when dissing environmentalists, union organizers and those concerned about global warming. But he also helped the needy when asked.
He ended up muddying the Massey name, which had built a strong reputation for philanthropy in Richmond when it was run by A.T. and then E. Morgan Massey. The Massey Cancer Center at VCU Health System, for example, was built with lots of Massey coal money. The Massey family sold its interests in the company in 2000.
Coal field families became exasperated while federal prosecutors took more than three years to build their case. Their apparent diligence might bring a historic payoff. If they win, it will be the first time that an actual coal baron has ever been held personally accountable for employees' lives.