Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy Co., has been sentenced to one year in prison, a $250,000 fine and a year of supervised release for his role in a 2010 mine blast that killed 29 people.
The sentence, handed down today, was the toughest possible for Blankenship. He was convicted in a Charleston, West Virginia, federal court in December of a misdemeanor for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. A jury acquitted him of three more serious felony charges.
According to news accounts, Blankenship said he was sorry for the families of the dead miners but insisted that he was innocent of any crime.
He is the highest-ranking corporate executive in this country to be found guilty of a workplace safety crime.
Blankenship was head of Richmond-based Massey Energy for 11 years. For decades, the Massey name has been well known locally for such philanthropy as founding the Massey Cancer Center at VCU Health System. The founder of what was called A.T. Massey Coal Co. lived in Ginter Park.
Although the Massey firm was headquartered in downtown Richmond until 2011 when it was sold to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for $7.1 billion, Blankenship rarely visited Richmond, preferring to run his operations from a double-wide trailer in Kentucky just across the border from West Virginia.
Blankenship was known for his intense hands-on management style, his disdain for labor unions and cutting corners on safety standards to save money. Although he wasn't convicted of being directly responsible for the blast at the Upper Big Branch that was the worst deep mine disaster in the United States in 40 years, Blankenship oversaw conditions that kept the mine with high levels of explosive coal dust.
Since Massey was sold, Alpha Natural Resources went bankrupt, as have most major coal companies in the country. Their product cannot keep pace with cheaper natural gas and the slumping global market for metallurgical coal to make steel. Pollution regulations likewise have become stricter.
The Upper Big Branch disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia, happened six years and one day from the date of Blankenship sentencing.