Don Blankenship may have been sent away to prison, but he wants everyone to know he’s still around and anxious to make the case for his innocence. The former Massey Energy CEO is mailing out 250,000 copies of a booklet he has put together with his side of the story of the Upper Big Branch disaster and his prosecution.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5, 2010 explosion at UBB. Last year, a federal jury convicted him of a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to violate federal safety standards, but acquitted him of several felony charges. He has served four months of a one year prison term at a federal prison in Taft, California. Blankenship’s appeal is pending in federal court.
Blankenship’s 67-page manifesto claims that he is a political prisoner, targeted by the United States government and leading Democrats because he was an outspoken conservative who tried to change the political direction of West Virginia. “The government is guilty of conspiring to make up a law to imprison an innocent American,” Blankenship writes from jail. “I am an American Political Prisoner.”
As Harvey Peyton, the attorney who served as legal advisor for MetroNews during the Blankenship trial, said of Blankenship’s claim, “It’s no letter from the Birmingham jail”—a reference to one of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s most famous writings.
Did federal prosecutors want to put Blankenship in jail? Of course they did. Booth Goodwin, who was the U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia at the time, told me on Talkline, “We did have sufficient evidence to convict Blankenship of willfully violating mine safety laws. He was the leader of a conspiracy to promote lawlessness across an entire enterprise.”
Blankenship uses his treatise to rehash his claims that the UBB explosion was caused by a rush of natural gas into the mine and a faulty ventilation plan ordered by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. “A natural gas explosion in a coal mine is essentially unheard of,” he writes. “The miners’ only hope was more airflow. MSHA had denied them that airflow.”
However, the Blankenship theory is not borne out by the established facts. Independent investigations concluded sparks created by the worn head of a longwall mining machine ignited unsafe levels of coal dust that had built up in the mine.
Blankenship reportedly wrote his paper longhand, mailed it to an associate who then organized it and arranged for the printing. Blankenship wants copies mailed to political office holders across the country.
He can do that, of course. He can still afford to make such an investment and clearly he has time on his hands. There is, however, the question of how many of the recipients will read it and how many of those will have any interest in Blankenship’s claim of political persecution.
After all, jailhouse letters from people convicted of crimes who claim to be victims of injustice and conspiracy are pretty common.