by Catherine Dees
He drove the men like mules, pushing coal production with a cavalier disregard for the safety of the workers in the Upper Big Branch mine he ruled, haranguing mine managers, supervisors and miners with his callous and calculating drive for profit over people. Will justice be served in the hearts and minds of family members who are left still grieving for their lost loved ones?
Donald Leon Blankenship, once a mighty coal lord with Massey Energy, sat laughing quietly with his four attorneys, his deep voice audible all the way to the back row of the court. Families who lost sons, fathers, brothers, nephews, husbands, and uncles in the worst mine disaster in 40 years filed into the U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia in Beckley, WV. Also in attendance were local activists and members of the press. Everyone noted Blankenship in his grey suit, red tie, and ever-so-relaxed demeanor, even resting his arms, draped over the back of his chair, seemingly confidant and unconcerned about his court appearance, arraignment, and bond hearing.
He did not behave like a man charged with four federal counts. First, “Conspiracy to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards” at the Upper Big Branch South Mine where 29 coal miners died in an explosion on April 5, 2010. Second alleges that Blankenship conspired to defraud the U.S. Third and fourth allege that Blankenship made “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the government and the Security and Exchange Commission.
United States Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort, however, pointedly admonished Blankenship in front of the court, saying he noted a “disdain for the supervisory role of the federal government” and further speculated how Blankenship may well continue this attitude of perceiving “this court and these proceedings with equal disdain.”
When the bond conditions were being discussed between the U.S. Attorneys and Blankenship’s legal staff, he appeared for the first time to comprehend just how restricted his life would be. He was not allowed release on his own recognizance and had to post a $5 million cash bond – which if he violates any terms of his required court appearances will be forfeited – is ordered to stay within the direct confines of the Southern District of WV and Pike County, Kentucky; he is allowed to travel to Washington, DC to meet with his attorneys; he is not allowed freedom of movement in the US without pre-authorization from the court and may not leave the country as he was forced to relinquish his passport to officials; he may not have firearms or animals in his possession; he is not allowed any contact with former colleagues or UBB victims, specifically told not to tamper with potential witnesses per the issued gag order.
He glanced at family members several times before the proceedings and in an unexpected moment actually approached the spectators after bond conditions were set. Those who lost family members softly gasped, wept, and hugged each other as they absorbed the strict conditions set by the Magistrate for Blankenship’s restricted living arrangements. Only one man, a former employee and supporter, extended his hand in friendship, although it appeared that security personnel did not allow the two to shake hands.
Climate Ground Zero will continue to report on the trial, beginning with the pre-trial hearing date of January 6 and trial which is scheduled for January 26, 2015.