It’s hard to figure out what the lessons are here, but the audacity and sheer political spectacle can’t go unremarked: the disgraced former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, is attempting a major comeback in the public arena by launching a serious run to become a Republican U.S. Senator for West Virginia, having emerged from federal prison only a year ago after a conviction related to a 2010 explosion at a Massey coal mine that killed 29 miners.
Blankenship was convicted in 2015 by a federal jury in West Virginia of conspiracy to violate U.S. mine-safety laws in relation to the deadly explosion caused by a buildup of methane at the firm’s Upper Big Branch underground metallurgical coal mine in Montcoal, W. Va., 48 km south of Charleston.
The conviction was unprecedented in U.S. mining history in that prosecutors targeted a high-ranking executive for workplace-related safety violations, though Blankenship was acquitted of the more serious charges of lying to regulators and investors regarding the accident. Indeed the conviction was for a misdemeanour with a maximum prison time of one year, which Blankenship served in full, followed by a one-year probation that just ended.
Two former Massey managers at the Upper Big Branch mine also pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate safety laws, while a former security chief at the mine was convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy safety-related documents. All three served prison terms.
The explosion at Upper Big Branch was the worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984, surpassing the 12 miners killed in 2006 at International Coal Group’s Sago coal mine in West Virginia — a more prominent accident in the U.S. public’s mind that prompted U.S. president at the time George W. Bush to sign the Miner Act of 2006 into law that June. It was the first major overhaul to mine-safety legislation in the U.S. since the 1977 passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act.
In the years before the explosion, the Upper Big Branch mine had a history of safety violations, including improper ventilation. In 2009, federal inspectors had fined the company US$382,000 for repeated violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment — which are critical for safe underground coal mining.
Many at the time speculated that some U.S. coal miners were merely incorporating the new act’s higher safety-violation fines into their business models, rather than directly remedying glaring safety deficiencies.
Massey was bought out for US$7.1 billion in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources, which filed for bankruptcy in 2015, as fortunes plummeted for the coal industry mid-decade.
Blankenship — described in an extensive Rolling Stone profile in November 2010 as the “Dark Lord of coal country,” and the coal industry’s “dirtiest CEO” — has been a polarizing figure in the current Republican three-way primary election due to take place within hours after our press time on May 8 (see final results in addendum below), with the winner set to target the vulnerable U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat and former West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, who once said Blankenship “had blood on his hands” because of the disaster.
Blankenship, inspired by Donald Trump’s outsider presidential run, says he is “Trumpier than Trump” and vows to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
He has taken aim at Kentucky Republican Senator and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, branding him “Cocaine Mitch,” and saying in an advertisement that “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people. While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars” — an apparent reference to the family of his wife and current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. 60 years ago from Taiwan and founded a successful shipping company in New York.
Trump has urged Republican voters in the state to reject Blankenship, while McConnell advisor Josh Holmes tweeted: “This clown is a walking, talking case study for the limitation of a prison’s ability to rehabilitate.”
[Editor’s note: With the final West Virginia Republican primary results in on May 9, Blankenship came third with 19.9% of the vote, versus 34.9% for winner Patrick Morrisey and 29.3% for runner-up Evan Jenkins (136,220 votes cast). In the Democratic primary, incumbent Senator Joe Manchin won with 69.8% of the vote (159,891 votes cast).]