Ex-coal CEO conviction stirs tougher safety penalty talks

December 24, 2015 GMT

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will spend a year behind bars — if that — in the wake of an explosion at a mine in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners five years ago. Critics say the punishment barely fits the crime and that the case is an example of a coal mining executive getting off too lightly when federal laws are broken.

Prosecutors said they could only work with the penalties Congress provided them. And almost all of the laws in the federal mine safety books are enforceable with only misdemeanor penalties.

“There simply is no reason why willfully violating mine safety laws, safety laws that are designed to keep people safe, should be punished less harshly than violations of the securities laws, which are designed to keep money safe,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, whose office prosecuted the case.

Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine — a misdemeanor — in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades. Jurors didn’t convict him of another conspiracy and securities fraud charges that could have extended his sentence to 30 years.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act — which would have stiffened penalties on mine safety crimes — was voted down by the U.S. House just months after the April 5, 2010 explosion. Only one House Republican voted with Democrats to try to pass the bill, and the proposal failed. The GOP took control of the House in January 2011.

Since then, Democrats have filed subsequent versions of the Byrd mine safety bill without getting much consideration or Republican support.

Though Blankenship’s defense attorneys say a $250,000 is his maximum penalty, a filing by the prosecution says tens of millions of dollars in restitution is possible. Prosecutors cited families of the deceased miners and Alpha Natural Resources, which purchased Massey, as among those possibly entitled to restitution.

Meanwhile, the Byrd bill, named after the late West Virginia senator, hasn’t died.

Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor this year, said there’s no question mine safety laws need to be strengthened. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a co-sponsor.

“Putting the lives of workers at risk in unsafe mines should be a felony and I will continue to push to change the law so that those operating unsafe mines are held fully accountable,” Casey said in a statement after Blankenship’s conviction.

Under the current version of the bill, violating mine safety rules by “recklessly exposing a miner to a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death” would be a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. Second-time offenses could double both penalties.

Republicans and coal industry groups have been mostly silent about Blankenship’s prosecution and conviction.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, would be open to considering whether stiffer penalties, like felonies, for mine safety violations are needed, said spokeswoman Amy Graham. Capito voted against the Byrd bill in the House in 2010.

Largely because of the weak law, few people have been indicted after mine safety disasters, said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and Lexington attorney representing miners.

“They’re higher-profile cases if you can charge people with a felony,” Oppegard said. “Therefore, there’s been tons of cases over the years where individuals could have been criminally charged after a mining fatality and they haven’t been.”