The Issue: The chief executive of a coal company that owned a West Virginia mine where 29 men died will spend a year in jail.
Our Opinion: The accident and the long trial that followed were a sober reminder of the consequences of ignoring the risks of coal mining and the safety of miners.
It was the deadliest coal mining accident in the United States in 40 years. On April 5, 2010, an explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killing 29 men. Autopsies showed that most of them had already developed back lung disease.
Six years and a day later, the former chief executive of Massey Energy Company, the owner of the mine at the time, was sentenced to a year in jail for conspiring to violate mine safety standards, a misdemeanor. The jury cleared him of three felony charges that could have landed him in prison for 30 years.
Donald T. Blankenship, the former chief executive, was the most prominent American coal executive ever convicted of a crime related to mining deaths, The New York Times
Scathing and startling reactions to the verdict, which took place long after the men were buried and memorials erected, came quickly.
Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said, "Today's verdict sends a clear message that no mine operator is above the law, that there must be accountability when people lose their lives because of the neglect of their employer."
R. Booth Goodwin II, the United States attorney who prosecuted the case, said, "How is it that this happens, and how is it that we have what seemed like a Third World mine disaster in the 21st century here in America?"
Answers to his questions weave their way through the trial transcript, comments from the judge and the investigations, which uncovered thousands of violations. What became the cause of the explosion, the buildup of flammable coal dust and gas, went unheeded by management even as workers complained.
The New Yorker
reported that Chris Blanchard, a former president of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, which operated the mine, had this to say about the collapse of West Virginia's regulatory might: "It was cheaper to pay the fines than the cost of preventing violations."
Others spoke out after the trial.
a former federal mine safety chief, and Beth Spence, a coal mine safety activist who helped investigate the explosion, wrote, "There have been times when courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level responded to mining disasters with big, bold reforms, sending families the message that their loved ones had not died in vain.
"Sadly, in response to Upper Big Branch, protections of miners have diminished, known safety remedies have been neglected and new technologies aren't being implemented," they added in an op-ed commentary in the Charleston Gazette-Mail
Patrick C. McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who was involved in the state's investigation of the deaths at Upper Big Branch, told the Times
, "A century of mine disasters and failing to hold coal company executives responsible is over."
We hope he's right. We hope that federal and state lawmakers advance new legislation where appropriate and that regulators enforce laws already on the books to protect the safety of miners.