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Trial Approaches of Former Richmond Coal Chief Donald Blankenship



Massey, a name long associated with Richmond and philanthropy, is due to get an international drubbing when the criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship gets underway in federal court Thursday in Charleston, West Virginia.

The former chief executive of Massey Energy Co. faces federal charges of ignoring safety rules in the run-up to the April 5, 2010, explosion at a West Virginia mine that killed 29 miners and trying to cover up the disasters to save his company’s stock and mislead shareholders.

The case has no current tie to the Massey family of Richmond, which founded and at one time owned the predecessor of Massey Energy, once the nation’s fourth-largest coal company. But its coal operations have contributed significantly to the area’s charities, and E. Morgan Massey of Richmond and Florida helped pick Blankenship to succeed him at the coal company, which was based downtown at Fourth Street.

Still in operation is the Massey Foundation, which was built on coal money and has nearly $62 million in assets. Tax records show that most of its income is from securities and natural gas pipelines.

Plenty of local institutions benefit from the foundation, including the Massey Cancer Center, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and St. Christopher’s and St. Catherine’s private schools.

Under the Massey family, the coal firm got a reputation for efficient, low-cost production and strong anti-union policies. After the family sold its stake and Blankenship took over about 15 years ago, the company became notorious among labor unions and environmentalists for its hardball practices involving worker relations, mine safety and mountaintop removal, in which the tops of mountains are lopped off to reach coal.

Blankenship assumed an in-your-face management style and donated heavily to political campaigns in West Virginia, including to judges who often sat on cases involving Massey.

Three investigative reports claim that Blankenship’s management contributed to the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine, which was the deadliest in the United States in 40 years.

Lawyers for Blankenship have won several delays and ask that the trial be moved far from the coalfields, perhaps to Baltimore, because Blankenship is so unpopular locally that he can’t get a fair trial.

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