On Friday, one day after the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) filed a 43-page, four-count Criminal Indictment [PDF] against infamous, long-time West Virginia coal boss Donald L. Blankenship, U.S. District Court Judge Irene C. Berger issued a gag order in the case in an effort to secure a federal jury in West Virginia that could "be fair and impartial and whose verdict [will be] based only upon evidence presented during trial."
That will be no easy feat.
Blankenship, whom Rolling Stone described in 2010 as "the Dark Lord of Coal Country," is the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of Massey Energy Co. An extraordinarily rapacious capitalist, Blankenship is credited with transforming coal into an "aggressive, partisan industry" where the goal was to extract coal "as fast and as cheap as possible."
Blankenship is a principle force behind the environmentally destructive "mountaintop removal" --- a practice that "has destroyed 2,000 miles of streams and damaged more than a million acres of forest," according to Jeff Goodell at Rolling Stone. Under Blankenship's leadership, the magazine reports, Massey also "injected toxic coal slurry," a biproduct of washing coal before its used for burning, "near underground aquifers" resulting in contamination of drinking water. (Where, elsewhere in the U.S., heart disease is the top killer, in Appalachia cancer is the number one cause of death.)
Last week's federal indictment, however, relates to "the Dark Lord's" role in the massive April 5, 2010 explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine ("UBB") that resulted in the deaths of 29 Massey employees. It was the nation's worst mine disaster in the past 40 years.
The indictment alleges that "Blankenship...conspired to commit and cause routine violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards," including "ventilation" regulations designed to prevent explosions, in order to maximize profits; that he "conspired to defraud the United States by impeding the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration ("MSHA") in carrying out its duties at UBB," and that Blankenship made "materially false statements...to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission" essentially to protect the value of Massey stock.
If convicted, Blankenship could wind up serving 31 years in federal prison. If convicted. Therein lies the rub....