Donald Blankenship, the former coal company executive who was sent to federal prison last year for his role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia, has urged President Trump not to consider legislation that would permit harsher punishment for coal mine supervisors who violate health and safety protocols.
In a letter to Trump this week, Blankenship wrote that “coal supervisors are not criminals” and that “more onerous criminal laws will not improve mine safety.” He also asked Trump to review the investigation into the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners were killed in one of the deadliest mining disasters in four decades.
He told Trump in his letter that he and the president share something: “relentless and false attacks on our reputation by the liberal media.” And he asked the president to help “put aside the media’s false claims about me and help me expose the truth of what happened at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine.”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Blankenship’s attorney declined to comment on the letter.
Blankenship, former chief executive of Massey Energy Company, was convicted in 2015 for conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch. In 2016, he was sentenced to a year in federal prison, the maximum sentence allowed for his misdemeanor conviction. Federal prison records show that he was released last week.
As The Washington Post reported, a federal investigation revealed “multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts” by Massey, which owned and operated the mine, “to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that noncompliance by federal and state regulators.”
Another investigation, commissioned by then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), found “the explosion was the result of failures of basic safety systems identified and codified to protect the lives of miners.”
The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mine. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished.
In his letter to Trump, Blankenship argued that the findings were not accurate and that “the truth needs to be told about what happened” at Upper Big Branch.
— Don Blankenship (@DonBlankenship) May 16, 2017
In particular, he criticized the findings from the investigation the governor commissioned, saying that the governor at the time had chosen one person, Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton, to conduct the investigation. He also said the investigation’s conclusions were “not confirmed by forensics, chemistry, nor by an explosion expert’s scientific research.”
McAteer said Tuesday that he was not chosen to conduct the investigation alone, instead putting together a panel to “systematically go through and find out where Blankenship was involved and how much he was involved in the running and operation of the mine, and it pointed the finger of responsibility to him.”
McAteer said that numerous coal miners are killed on the job each year and that Blankenship is one of the first people in a supervisory or ownership position to have served time in prison in the past 50 years.
“I think it’s important to recognize that, currently, there’s very limited criminal liability on the part of mine operators,” McAteer said.
Lawmakers, including Manchin, now a U.S. senator, have tried and failed to push through legislation requiring harsher criminal penalties for those who violate safety standards.
Blankenship told Trump that lawmakers need to pass legislation to “improve America’s mine safety laws and to divide the Mine Safety and Health Administration into two separate agencies,” one as a regulatory agency and the other an accident investigation arm.
“That legislation will allow America’s coal miners to mine coal at less risk to themselves,” he wrote.