I’ve been following and writing about the saga of Massey Energy and Don Blankenship even since the 5 April 2010 fire in their Upper Big Branch Mine when they killed 29 miners.
Now, Blankenship—who should have been charged with murder—is actually standing trial on three felony counts, including conspiracy to violate mining safety rules, conspiracy to block inspectors from carrying out their duties at the Upper Big Branch mine before the explosion, and misleading financial regulators about his company’s safety record after the explosion.
According to the New York Times,
That he is being prosecuted at all is stunning, given his political clout in a state with a long, sordid history of coal-mine tragedies, stretching back to at least the late 1800s. He spent $5 million to elect one State Supreme Court justice, which prompted a documentary film labeling him “The Kingmaker,” and he was photographed on the French Riviera with another. Both later voted to throw out a $50 million jury verdict against Massey.
“Politicians, Democrats and Republicans, flocked to Blankenship,” said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who contributed to the state inquiry. “He was viewed by many as untouchable, just like all the other corporate executives of coal companies that killed scores or hundreds or thousands of miners over the last century.”
That’s why the trial itself, regardless of the final verdict, is a sign of change in coal country:
Gary Quarles, a retired miner whose son, Gary Wayne Quarles, 33, died in the blast, was a miner himself. He and his wife, Patty, who has a tattoo on her left ankle of her son wearing his black miner’s hard hat, have been attending the proceedings.
The trial began last week; it is expected to run into November. By the end, Mr. Quarles said, the public will “see what kind of man Don really is.”
Five years after losing their son, the couple would like to see Mr. Blankenship convicted. But seeing him in court — surrounded by lawyers, listening to himself referred to as “the defendant” — is a kind of satisfaction in itself.
Not enough, perhaps, but change it is.