A jury of eight women and four men on Thursday convicted former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship of conspiring to violate mine safety rules in connection with the explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. in 2010. It was the nation’s deadliest mining accident in 40 years.
The consequence of the conviction goes beyond potential jail time for Blankenship. The former coal baron, who retired from Massey in 2010, was the first mining official in United States history to be charged criminally in connection with a worker’s death, and now he’s the first to be convicted. The verdict has the potential to change the coal industry’s consideration of safety. Until now, coal miner fatalities have been considered a business expense—tragic, but an unavoidable cost in an industry that harvests the mineral from stubborn earth.
Despite being found guilty on one charge, Blankenship secured a partial victory in court since he was acquitted on two felony charges—securities fraud and making false statements. His conviction of the misdemeanor charge of conspiring to break mine safety regulations carries a maximum prison sentence of one year. He’d initially faced a maximum sentence of 31 years.
Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who worked on an independent investigation of the 2010 accident, doesn’t expect the acquittals to mitigate the effects of the verdict because Blankenship’s conviction on the misdemeanor count “speaks directly to the responsibility of coal mine management to comply with the law and protect miners lives,” whereas the other two charges pertain to securities law.
“The prosecution and conviction does send a message to coal mine managers that they can’t be cavalier; they can’t put profits above miners’ health and safety,” McGinley said.
Blankenship faced criminal charges while other mining executives have not—in large part—because federal prosecutors say he was involved in Upper Big Branch’s output to an extraordinary degree. He demanded reports every half hour on its production—they were sent to his home by fax on nights and weekends. The level of detail that Blankenship demanded from his subordinates isn’t something you find from a chairman of the board or CEO of many major corporations—coal or otherwise, McGinley told Fortune in September.
Because of Blankenship’s extensive knowledge of the day-to-day operations of Upper Big Branch, federal prosecutors sought to hold him personally responsible for the 835 violations of federal mine safety standards they found at the mine from January 2008 through the time of the fatal explosion.
On April 5, 2010, methane gas infiltrated the Upper Big Branch mine 1,200 feet underground. When a longwall shearer—or cutting machine—penetrated the mine’s roof, it served as a fuse, lighting airborne coal dust that served and triggering successive blasts that tore through miles of the mine, asphyxiating some miners and pummeling others against the cavern’s walls and roof.
An investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration in November 2011 reached a conclusion similar to those of two other inquiries—that the 29 miners perished because Massey disregarded hazards that resulted from “a series of basic safety violations at [Upper Big Branch]” that were “entirely preventable.”
Blankenship’s lawyer William Taylor did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the former CEO is expected to appeal.