Upper Big Branch disaster back in the headlines as anniversary approaches

April 3, 2014

Four years after the worst coal mining disaster in the United States in 40 years claimed the lives of 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia the incident is making headlines again.

Nearing the April 5 anniversary of the accident, federal officials told ABC News that prosecutors are now focused on the role of former Massey Energy CEO Donald L. Blankenship.

“I believe this permeated from the top down – from Don Blankenship down,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who was governor at the time of the blast. “I believe that Don has blood on his hands. And I believe that justice will be done.”

For his part, Blankenship has been speaking with media outlets, promoting a documentary film titled “Upper Big Branch: Never Again.” A project that he provided funding for the project and one that he says disputes the findings of multiple reports, including the official report from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that found, "an unsafe level of coal dust in the mine, inadequate risk dusting and poor ventilation" led to the explosion.

Blankenship offers what he says is proof that the explosion was the result of an unexpected surge of natural gas into the mine shaft – not the result of safety deficiencies.

Despite the findings presented in the video, available on YouTube, pressure has been steadily increasing for prosecutors to move against Blankenship.

Federal officials have prosecuted four Massey employees — most recently exacting a guilty plea from a high ranking official who acknowledged that the company employed a practice of tipping off mine workers when a safety inspector was coming onto the site.

U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II told ABC News that prosecutions to date show his office has been methodically going “up the line, and consistently so” in assessing whether conduct by mine operators may have led to the explosion.

“What we have seen is a conspiracy to violate mine safety and health laws,” Goodwin said. “And that conspiracy was very pervasive.”

Blankenship refused to participate in the official state and federal investigations into the disaster – with his lawyer invoking his fifth amendment rights in a letter to investigators. While promoting the video this week, Blankenship told ABC News he declined to meet with investigators because he did not believe they would treat him fairly.

“Because the people doing the investigating were also doing the regulating and the inspecting,” he said. “And when you’re investigating yourself, it’s not going to be a fair investigation.”

Manchin, who appears in the documentary, said he was tricked into appearing in the film, and is outraged by what he called a “callous” attempt by Blankenship to rewrite history.

“Don is taking his millions of dollars that he made off the sweat and blood of the miners and using it now, trying to turn things around and vindicate himself,” Manchin said. “Now you talk about a cynical approach to something. That’s heartless. And that’s about as bad as it gets.”


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