The one year sentence handed down yesterday to former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster is not enough, say miners and occupational safety advocates.

“I am gratified that Don Blankenship was found guilty of violating mine safety laws and that he received the maximum sentence available for that crime,” said United Mine Workers of America International (UMWA) President Cecil E. Roberts. “However, it is outrageous that the most time in prison he can receive as a punishment is one year.

One week per death

“There were 52 people killed at Massey mines while he was CEO of that company. The penalty he has received means he will get one week per death. That’s a travesty. He orchestrated a scheme to evade mine safety laws, impede enforcement of those laws, provide false information to federal safety inspectors and more, all of which put every miner who worked on any Massey property at risk of losing their lives every day they went to work.

“Far too many of them did, 29 on one terrible day six years ago. Don Blankenship deserves to go to jail, for that is surely where he belongs. And although this sentence will not begin to make him atone for his crimes, there is a higher court he will answer to someday, and I have complete faith that the justice he receives there will be more than adequate.”

"Hardly enough"

Jessica Martinez, acting executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) echoed Roberts’ sentiment.

"Don Blankenship deserves the one-year prison sentence announced today -- and more. One year is hardly enough to make up for the years and decades of life lost at the Upper Big Branch disaster, where 29 miners died because of safety failures.

"Blankenship's one-year sentence and $250,000 fine were the maximum allowed under current law. We need stronger safety laws, with tougher penalties, to protect workers and families. Thousands of U.S. workers die every year from traumatic injuries at work, and tens of thousands more die from the long-term effect of exposure to workplace hazards.

“All too often, these deaths happen when executives like Don Blankenship make decisions that put profits and production ahead of worker safety. The way to change this irresponsible behavior is to ensure swift, certain and severe punishment for those who abuse their authority and put workers' lives at risk."

Inadequate ventilation system in mine

The explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners.A report commissioned by the governor of West Virginia lays the blame for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster squarely on Massey Energy, owner and operator of the facility.

According to the report: “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.” 

Blankenship was convicted on three misdemeanor counts for conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine health and safety standards at the mine. He was acquitted of the more serious felony charges he was facing.