In 2010, a coal dust explosion -- the worst mining accident since 1970 -- at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners. Prior to the explosion, the mine had been cited for over 1,300 safety violations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, but Blankenship dismissed concerns, stating in an interview that safety violations are "a normal part of the mining process." Accordingly, he faced charges of security fraud, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and defrauding the federal government, in addition to the conspiracy indictment.
Massey Energy has been guilty of a myriad of environmental crimes, in addition to their disregard for workers' safety. As of 2010, it was the biggest perpetrator of mountaintop removal mining, an extremely deleterious practice, and has been careless with its toxic coal ash since the 1980s. Massey's irresponsible practices have contaminated much of West Virginia's groundwater, causing sickness, cancer and birth defects. According to the environmental site PolluterWatch, Blankenship has long "consider[ed] environmental regulations 'as silly as global warming,' of which he is an avid denier."
Despite its inadequacy, the jury's verdict is significant because it marks one of the first times that a leading figure in the coal industry has been held legally responsible for wrongdoing. However, it underscores the necessity of increasing the penalties for these heinous offenses -- and of actually enforcing them.