(CHARLESTON, W.Va.) — The trial of embattled coal boss Don Blankenship is scheduled to begin Thursday in Charleston, West Virginia, less than 40 miles from the site of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster that cost 29 men their lives five years ago.
Blankenship has pleaded not guilty to a raft of charges related to the disaster and told ABC News last year he “does the right thing.”
“You know, you can’t just take the side of the government. The government’s people too,” he said in an April 2014 interview, before he was indicted. “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.”
When asked then if he thought he would be indicted, Blankenship chuckled and said, “No.”
The 43-page indictment filed against the CEO a few months later accuses him of taking short cuts on safety in order to maximize profits for his company, Massey Energy, including failing to properly ventilate the mine. Investigators suspect a buildup of methane and coal dust caused the deadly April 2010 blast. Blankenship retired from Massey later that year.
Blankenship “conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards” at the mine and “was part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties at Upper Big Branch by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed,” the indictment alleges.
When Blankenship pleaded not guilty in November 2014, his lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said his client “is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.”
At the time of the April 2014 interview with ABC News, as federal officials began to focus on Blankenship’s role in the Upper Big Branch explosion after he refused to participate in the official state and federal investigations, Blankenship embarked on a public relations offensive to promote a 50-minute film called “Never Again” which offered what he said was proof that the explosion was the result of an unexpected surge of natural gas into the mine shaft — not the result of safety deficiencies.
“No one ever did more for improving or trying to improve safety,” Blankenship told ABC News. He said he declined to meet with investigators because he did not believe they would treat him fairly.
But the consensus among the families of the victims, and of West Virginia’s political leaders, is that Blankenship bears the ultimate responsibility for America’s worst mining disaster since 1970.
Prior to the indictment against Blankenship, federal officials had prosecuted a handful of Massey employees and were methodically “going up the line, and consistently so” as one prosecutor put it.
A large group of relatives of those killed in the mine told ABC News in early 2014 that they were waiting patiently for their day in court. Many rallied outside the courthouse when Blankenship’s indictment was announced later that year.
“I believe that Don has blood on his hands and I believe that justice will be done. I’ve got to believe that,” Sen. Joe Machin, D-West Virginia, said in an interview in April 2014.
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