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US District Court Upholds Conviction of Mining Boss for Safety Violations

A US District Court has upheld the conviction of a former coal mining chief executive for violating mine safety laws. Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor in December 2015 and was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison in May 2016 for an underground coal mining explosion that killed 29 men.

“We affirm the District Court’s judgment,” is the final sentence of today’s ruling, written by Judge James A. Wynn Jr and joined by Senior Judge Andre M. Davis and Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory, a first reported yesterday by the West Virginia Metro News. “After careful review, we conclude the district court committed no reversible error.”

Blankenship could still appeal his case to the US Supreme Court.

The former coal baron has denied the charges against him, which initially included criminal counts involving violations of mine safety laws and two counts dealing with securities fraud. The conviction is for the safety violation only and is tied to a 2010 coal mining explosion in Beckley, WV that killed 29 miners. The case also resulted in the successful prosecution of four former Massey managers.

The case was filed in the US District Court for Southern West Virginia and it maintained that Blankenship ignored federal mining safety laws so that the “Upper Big Branch” mine owned by Massey could increase production. That “UBB” division had been one of the company’s most profitable, accounting for between $300 million and $400 million of the parent’s $2.3 billion in revenues in 2009 and 2010. Massey is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources 

On Thursday, the three-judge panel for the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals delivered its opinion: “The Mine Safety Act declares that ‘operators’ — like Defendant — have the primary responsibility to prevent unsafe and unhealthful conditions and practices at mines,” the ruling said, also noted in the WV Metro News story

“Because mine operators have ‘primary’ responsibility for safety and regulatory compliance and because an operator act with reckless disregard if he ‘closes his eyes’ to safety compliance or ‘should have known’ that an action or omission would lead to a safety violation, a mine operator cannot avoid liability under Section 820(d) by failing to engage in close oversight over safety and regulatory compliance,” the story adds.

“Defendant knew that his actions and omissions would lead to violations of mine safety laws and regulations,” it concludes.

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