(CN) – The former chief executive of the Massey Energy Company was indicted on charges stemming from a 2010 mine disaster in West Virginia that left 29 men dead.
Donald Blankenship, who retired eight months after Upper Big Branch disaster near Montcoal, W. Va., was indicted on four counts by a grand jury on Thursday.
According to the indictment, Blankenship knew the Massey was committing “hundreds of safety-law violations every year” at the mine, had the ability to prevent most of them, and yet “he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.”
The Upper Big Branch mine was the site of a massive explosion on April 5, 2010 that killed men working at a depth of about 1,200 feet. Investigators from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded in 2011 that the explosion was caused by safety violations that allowed coal dust and methane to ignite.
The disaster was the deadliest mine mishap in the United States since 1970.
The 43-page indictment details allegedly wanton attempts to skirt the law and to hide violations.
It says during the period relevant to the charges against Blankenship, the mine was cited 835 times for violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards — one of the highest levels of safety-law violations of an Massey mine.
Of these, 319 were considered to be in an especially series category of violations, and 283 were violations of laws on mine ventilation which are intended to prevent explosions and fires and to minimize deaths and serious injuries should an explosion or fire occur.
Prosecutors said that from early 2009 on, Blankenship received details reports on the mine’s safety violation and kept a running tally of potential fines.
But instead of taking steps to dramatically reduce the violations, prosecutors says Blankenship “chose to maximize profits by depriving UBB of the coal miners and non-coal-production time that it needed to comply with mandatory federal mine safety standards, concluding that it was less expensive to routinely pay fines for violating such standards than to allocate the necessary funds to following them.”
Blankenship was charged with authorizing a scheme wherein miners at work underground would be warned through the use of “code words and phrases” when federal safety inspectors made surprise visits.
He also faces charges of engaging in a conspiracy to violate safety laws, defrauding the federal government and securities fraud.
If convicted on all counts, Blankenship faces 31 years in prison.
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