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Five Years After Coal Mine Disaster, Trial Of Ex-CEO Begins

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of the most powerful men in West Virginia finds himself on trial. Don Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, and he's charged with conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. Those charges stem from a 2010 explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch mine. That explosion left 29 men dead. West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Ashton Marra reports Blankenship is one of the highest level executives ever to face charges related to mine safety violations.

ASHTON MARRA, BYLINE: On Monday, April 5, 2010, at around 3 p.m., an explosion rocked the small West Virginia town of Montcoal at the Upper Big Branch mine. Twenty-one-year-old Adam Morgan was one of the 29 miners who died that day. His father, Steve Morgan, a coal miner himself, testified before a congressional committee about a month after the accident.

STEVE MORGAN: Well, I actually - I tried talking him into quitting two weeks prior to the accident. I said, if it's that bad, you need to go ahead and come on out. We'll find you something else.

MARRA: Upper Big Branch was the worst mining disaster in the U.S. in 40 years. An investigation by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, and a state-funded independent investigation blamed coal company Massey Energy and its unsafe practices for the blast. They pointed to poor ventilation, high levels of explosive coal dust and a history of violations. At the time, Massey's CEO Don Blankenship, in a 2014 interview with MSNBC, he maintained it wasn't shoddy practices to blame but an inundation of natural gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DON BLANKENSHIP: All those reports ignore that fact. MSHA, which is the government's own samples, show it was natural gas, contained ethane and propane.

MARRA: Now, Blankenship is on trial for conspiring to violate mine safety standards and lying to investors about his company's safety record. Neither prosecutors nor Blankenship's attorneys are speaking to the media. But Charleston attorney Mike Hissam says these types of charges are rare in the judicial system.

MIKE HISSAM: That has not historically happened. In the Wall Street cases, in the financial crisis cases, there were not bankers or Wall Street types that were the subject of prosecutions like this.

MARRA: Hissam is a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the early phases of the Blankenship investigation. He says what makes this case different is evidence that Blankenship was a micromanager who received production updates from Upper Big Branch every half hour. He also wrote memos to mine operators, telling them their top priority was to, quote, "run coal," meaning ramp up production.

HISSAM: Mr. Blankenship is somewhat legendary for his hands-on decision-making at the Massey mines. And the government is going to have a wealth of evidence of individual decisions, even at a very minute level, that the CEO of a publicly traded coal company was actively involved in and participating in those types of decisions.

MARRA: This case will likely have implications for CEOs across industries, particularly after the Justice Department last month urged federal prosecutors to go after individuals and not just corporations. As for the safety implications, Congress passed no laws to strengthen mine safety regulations after Upper Big Branch. Mine regulators did make some administrative changes. Tony Oppegard, a former adviser to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, says it's not enough.

TONY OPPEGARD: You have 29 dead miners as a result, still nothing is done, and I think it's an indictment of our politicians in Congress. And it's a shame.

MARRA: If found guilty, Don Blankenship faces up to 31 years in prison. For NPR News, I'm Ashton Marra in Charleston, W.V. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.