Senate Candidate and Former Coal CEO Don Blankenship Blames MSHA, Considers Conviction A ‘Badge of Honor’ in West Virginia

Don Blankenship

WHEELING — Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship considers his misdemeanor conviction for issues surrounding the deaths of 29 coal miners to be “a badge of honor” in West Virginia.

He blames both federal and state government regulators for the fatal explosion that killed the men.

Now, Blankenship is traveling around West Virginia in hopes of earning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate this year. The winner will face Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in the November general election.

Blankenship was acquitted of felony charges in late 2015 on charges of lying about safety procedures at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., which was the site of the 2010 disaster.

Blankenship did, however, serve a year in prison for a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards.

“It’s a badge of honor in West Virginia to be put in jail for a misdemeanor by (former President Barack) Obama,” he said. “Think about it — I was the only misdemeanor in a prison with 2,400 convicted felons. My lawyers were so shocked. They said I wouldn’t go to prison for a first time misdemeanor.

“I stayed there two months longer than a lot of the felons did. There’s something amiss there.”

He said “the government,” or federal prosecutors, didn’t charge him with causing the explosion.

“They knew if they did, it would be proven that they (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) caused it,” he said.

According to Blankenship, MSHA mandates had directed the amount of air inside the mine be cut in half. He said natural gas coming out of the ground, and the lack of air, were the major factors contributing to the explosion.

“You can’t have an explosion — regardless of what else is going on — if you don’t have an explosive atmosphere…,” he said. “I hadn’t been in the mine in 10 years. MSHA was there every day, including the day of the explosion. In addition to that, they knew the mine was in good condition because it had just passed a quarterly testing for rock dust.”

As he travels around the state, Blankenship said he has learned West Virginians are banking their hopes for the state’s future on coal and the energy sector.

“The commonality is the state has opportunities — there’s gas up in this place in the world (the Northern Panhandle), and there’s metallurgical coal down south,” he said. “People are generally optimistic, but I would say they are not confident. They’ve heard that story so many times, and been through so many booms and busts. While they are optimistic, they are also cautious, I guess.”

The future of West Virginia lies in creating a business atmosphere, according to Blankenship.

“For too long, we’ve thought we were solely an energy business,” he said. “Certainly, energy is important. There is no reason we can’t have chemical businesses, and no reason we can’t have high-tech businesses. We just need to let businesses know they are welcome. We need to have laws that they feel comfortable with. If we do that, we can have any business we want.”

Blankenship said West Virginians will identify with him as a senator.

“When I go to Washington, I will represent them,” Blankenship said. “I am a West Virginian, and I share their beliefs. I don’t have to pretend that I would represent them because I am identical to the great majority of West Virginians. It will be a great thing for me to represent them. It will be a natural thing for me to do.”