DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, we're about to hear about something pretty rare in the world of mining. A former coal mine company executive has been indicted for his alleged role in a deadly mine disaster. Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship conspired to violate mine safety laws and impede enforcement at the company's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine. An explosion there four years ago killed 29 miners. Let's bring NPR's Howard Berkes in now. Howard, good morning.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: And you covered this story, as we recall. Remind us exactly what happened at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
BERKES: There was a combination of excessive and explosive coal dust throughout that mine. There was faulty equipment that didn't control that coal dust and explosive methane gas. There was weak ventilation underground in the mine, which is supposed to sweep away coal dust and methane gas. And all of that got involved in a spark from a mining machine, ignited methane gas, and then that triggered a coal dust explosion. And that fed a series of explosions throughout the mine that went for miles underground.
GREENE: And, as we said, killed 29 miners. So what exactly are prosecutors saying Don Blankenship, the CEO, did that relates to this explosion?
BERKES: The indictment says that Blankenship is actually responsible for those dangerous conditions that led to the explosion because he allegedly micromanaged every aspect of production and safety at that mine. I mean, here he was, this CEO - a $2 billion a year company. And he's receiving reports every half hour about this one mine. The company had dozens of mines. He gets these reports at home. He gets them on weekends. And he made it clear to mine managers there that production was more important than anything else, according to the indictment. In one example, prosecutors say Blankenship ordered a sharp cut in labor costs but without hurting production. And the only way to do that, the indictment says, was by cutting back on the kind of labor used to make the mines safer, like cleaning up excessive coal dust.
GREENE: Well, massive companies, you say, with other mines? Why was he so focused on this one?
BERKES: Because it produced metallurgical coal. That's used for making steel. And at the time, metallurgical coal was in really high demand, especially overseas. And it made far more money for the company than coal used to fuel power plants. And Upper Big Branch and the other mines in that same area and that same part of the company ranked among the highest moneymakers for the company. But they also ranked among the worst violators of safety regulations, according to the indictment. And because Blankenship allegedly micromanaged Upper Big Branch, he knew about these violations. That's what prosecutors argue. So he knew that miners were at risk as a result of his management decisions.
GREENE: We mentioned this is pretty rare, for a CEO to be charged in something like this. Does the prosecution have a case?
BERKES: Well, there are indications in the indictment that one or more senior Massey Energy executives directly responsible for safety and for production at Upper Big Branch have flipped. And they're providing testimony and documents against Blankenship. Now, none of them are named. And they're not called unindicted co-conspirators. So that suggests that they appear to be fully cooperating with prosecutors.
GREENE: Has Blankenship responded to these charges yet?
BERKES: His attorney issued a brief statement saying Blankenship is innocent and claiming that the indictment is persecution for his strident criticism of federal agencies.
GREENE: OK, so there's just a taste of what the defense is going to be. You know, Howard, we've been running your stories about mining this week. And we're going to be running one actually on the program today, on weaknesses in the mine safety penalty system. But we took that off our board to make room for this breaking story. Your story's going to air on All Things Considered this weekend. But I'm hearing some similarities here between Upper Big Branch and some of the reporting you've been doing.
BERKES: Well, we have been talking about, you know, 2,700 mining companies that failed to pay nearly $70 million in mine safety penalties, you know, most for years - some for decades. The delinquent mines had injury rates 50 percent higher, but they continued to violate the law. They continued to injure miners. And federal regulators didn't seem to be able to do much about it. Well, with Upper Big Branch, that mine had thousands of dollars in delinquent fines, $250,000 before the explosion. Yet, the mine continued to operate. It continued to commit dangerous violations. And many people have wondered why the federal mine safety agency hadn't done more at Upper Big Branch. The similarity is that some mines that were persistently unsafe continue to operate and continue to be unsafe like Upper Big Branch.
GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Howard Berkes about the former CEO of Massey Energy, who's now been charged in a deadly mine incident four years ago. Howard, thanks a lot.
BERKES: You're welcome, David.
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