The CEO in charge at the time of the Massey coal mining disaster finally goes to trial in a case that raises significant issues about who is responsible for corporate misbehavior, including criminal negligence.
It was the worst mining disaster of modern times, laying bare a pattern of lethal neglect and corporate culpability that now grips coal country with the rarest of events — the sight of Mr. Blankenship, one of the industry’s most politically and economically powerful bosses, being brought to answer before a jury of his Appalachian peers about the deaths of Appalachian miners. He insists he is innocent and the victim of government and media excesses, as he faces charges that could imprison him for up to 31 years.
In the lead-up to the trial in Charleston, prosecutors convicted four lower ranking executives, establishing a criminal pattern of aggressive neglect and evasion of government rules that repeatedly put miners’ lives at risk. Lately, the prosecutors have said that under Mr. Blankenship’s leadership, production demands trumped safety at Massey Energy, which owned the mine where a fireball of methane gas and coal dust exploded underground.
Big coal’s corporate culture is also on trial. Tape recordings reveal Mr. Blankenship fretting about an internal memo warning that the company is “plainly cheating” in its required samplings of the coal dust. “This game is about money,” he is heard to say.