Coal King Don Blankenship Gets 1 Year in Prison After Deadly Mine Disaster

Explosion six years ago Tuesday killed 29 miners in West Virginia.

ByABC News
April 6, 2016, 12:49 PM

— -- A West Virginia judge ruled today that coal King Don Blankenship will head behind bars for a year for his role in safety violations related to an explosion that killed 29 miners six years ago this week.

Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was convicted in December of one of three counts against him for conspiring to “willfully violate mandatory mine health and safety standards” at the Upper Big Branch mine that claimed the lives of 29 men in an explosion on April 5, 2010. A federal safety inspection later found that “if basic safety measures had been in place… there would have been no loss of life at UBB [Upper Big Branch].”

Blankenship was sentenced today to one year in prison, plus one year’s supervised release and a $250,000 fine -– the maximum penalty for the conspiracy charge, according to ABC News’ local affiliate WCHS. Prosecutors had bemoaned such a short maximum sentence for what they called “monstrous” wrongdoing.

“Although already fabulously wealthy by the time of the criminal conspiracy of which he stands convicted, Defendant’s greed was such that he would willfully imperil his workers’ survival to further fatten his bank accounts. What punishment can suffice for wrongdoing so monstrous?” prosecutors said in a court filing last month. “Which is worse: a poor, uneducated young man who sells drugs because he sees no other opportunity, or a multimillionaire executive at the pinnacle of his power, who decides to subject his workers to a daily game of Russian roulette? Which is worse: that young man carrying a gun during a single drug deal – a crime that will earn him a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence – or a CEO jeopardizing the lives of hundreds, day after day?”

Don L. Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Co., appears before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies hearing on mine safety May 20, 2010 in Washington.
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

In court Blankenship reportedly said that he was not guilty of a crime, but wanted to meet with the families of the victims. He called those who died great miners, according to WCHS.

Clay Mullins, who lost his brother Rex in the 2010 tragedy, said outside the courthouse that he didn’t buy it.

“I laughed because I knew it wasn’t true,” Mullins told WCHS. “He’s not sorry. He’s sorry he got caught. But he’s not sorry for the 29 lives that he took. He’s sorry he’s not stuffing his pockets with more money.”

In April 2014, Sen. Joe Machin, D-West Virginia, told ABC News, “I believe that Don has blood on his hands and I believe that justice will be done. I’ve got to believe that.”

Just months before the indictment in 2014, Blankenship sat down with ABC News and said he was despised by some critics because he “does the right thing.” Blankenship denied he had ever cut corners on safety matters.

“You know, you can’t just take the side of the government. The government’s people too,” he said. “They have their own failings and their own shortcomings. We need to get to the bottom of these safety issues and truly protect coal miners, rather than seeing if we can blacken someone’s reputation and hurt somebody.”

“No one ever did more for improving or trying to improve safety,” Blankenship told ABC News then. When asked if he believed he would be indicted, Blankenship chuckled and said, “No.”

Mine workers stand at the entrance of the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine on April 9, 2010 in Montcoal, W.V.