POLITICS

Coal Industry Worried Its Executives Might Somehow Be Responsible For Their Companies' Actions

With Massey Energy's Don Blankenship in jail, coal companies are concerned about these tricky "law" thingies.

After Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship knowingly conspired to violate the safety standards at his Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, a jury of his peers said, “Yeah, you are totally guilty of conspiring to violate the safety standards at your mine.”

In the wake of his malfeasance, the coal industry is taking a hard look at how it might redouble its efforts to comply with the laws designed to keep its miners safe.

Ha, just kidding!

The coal industry is actually suddenly concerned about this weird thing where a wealthy coal executive was deemed to be responsible for the things that happened on his watch. As the Associated Press’ Jonathan Mattise reports, “Coal industry groups from three states are arguing that the conviction of former coal executive Don Blankenship could unfairly expose other industry leaders to criminal conspiracy charges.”

It’s probably worth remembering, of course, that Blankenship’s ongoing practice of getting repeatedly cited for safety violations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, and then instructing his fellow executives “to postpone safety improvements” eventually led to the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch facility that claimed the lives of 29 miners. The obvious teachable moment, to the industry, would be “don’t do that” ― but apparently a number of coal industry groups have learned another lesson entirely.

The Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia Coal Associations shared their concerns in a brief Tuesday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering Blankenship’s appeal.

We “cannot sit idly by and allow the expansion of criminal law to the point that mere involvement of company management in certain affairs can serve as a basis, in whole or in part, for criminal prosecution,” they wrote.

According to the report, these groups “aren’t taking sides” and “don’t support overturning” Blankenship’s conviction. They’re just really worried about this argument in which executive decisions come with all this “accountability” stuff.

Essentially, these industry groups are arguing that the ongoing practice of neglecting the safety of miners and their workplaces should not be considered a “willful” conspiracy unless prosecutors can demonstrate this practice was undertaken both “for a ‘bad purpose’” and with the “knowledge aforethought that the action was illegal.” They object to the standard applied by the judge in Blankenship’s case, in which there was no “bad purpose” standard and jurors were merely instructed to consider the conspiracy charge to be proven if “a defendant enters into a conspiracy knowingly and willfully ... and participates in the conspiracy with knowledge of and the intent to further its unlawful object.”

Presumably, this means it would remain illegal if executives got together and hatched a plan to murder their employees ― but not if these same executives got together to make a string of management decisions that led to predictable consequences, like a bunch of miners dying on the job. You know, like how the need to maximize profits might lead to not spending money on getting into compliance with MSHA safety regulations.

As Mattise reports, “Coal executives worry [Blankenship’s case] sets a precedent that could leave more coal operators at risk because safety citations occur frequently in coal mining and their operators are required to respond to them.” 

That seems to be a really stunning thing to admit publicly, and perhaps might have come as a surprise to coal miners ― who might otherwise have assumed they’ve been working in an environment in which safety concerns are, in fact, being responded to.

Of course, the concerns of these coal industry groups may be a bit mislaid. After all, Blankenship’s guilty verdict in this case only earned him a single year in jail and forced him to pay a $250,000 fine. (If you’re keeping score, Blankenship was paid $18 million in 2009.) So, relatively speaking, this isn’t even much of a punishment; the wealthy and politically connected Blankenship will emerge from prison just as rich and influential as ever and live a life free from worry.

Blankenship began serving his sentence in May, but not before he showed up to protest at a Williamson, West Virginia, campaign event for former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (who now, ironically, has this whole “getting off pretty easy” thing in common with the former Massey Energy head). Blankenship came out to jeer Clinton based on an out-of-context quote she’d made about how her administration would “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.” 

Clinton has since apologized for the remark, but we’ll remind you that when you glance at the “coal miners eliminated” scoreboard, Blankenship still has a comfortable 29-0 lead.

~~~~~

Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

CONVERSATIONS