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Upper Big Branch families protest Blankenship video

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

About two-dozen family members and supporters of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster gathered Wednesday afternoon outside the federal courthouse in Charleston to voice their opposition to an Internet video in which former Massey CEO Don Blankenship denies any responsibility for the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

“It makes me very angry,” said Shereen Atkins, whose 25-year-old son, Jason, died in the blast. “Even with something as big as this — killing 29 men — he has no remorse. He could care less that he killed 29 employees that day.”

Atkins and other family members carried signs that urged federal officials to prosecute Blankenship, who funded the new video to criticize state, federal and independent investigations that blamed the disaster on Massey’s poor safety practices.

Tommy Davis, a UBB miner whose son, Corey, was killed in the disaster, said Blankenship needs to “man up” and “take the blame” for what happened.

“Don Blankenship took [Corey’s] life by being chief executive officer and not doing his job right,” said Davis, who also lost a brother and a nephew in the explosion.

Blankenship’s 51-minute video, released less than a week before the anniversary of the disaster, recycles theories previously pushed by Blankenship and other top Massey officials, as well as company attorneys, that the April 5, 2010, explosion was fueled by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas that inundated the Raleigh County mine. It argues that an illegal buildup of coal dust played no role, insists that Massey’s ventilation practices were not at fault and depicts Blankenship as a major safety and health innovator.

Two government investigations and two independent probes blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition that turned into a huge, coal-dust-fueled explosion.

Four former Massey employees have gone to jail as part of an ongoing federal criminal investigation of the disaster. Prosecutors have said former Massey executives and board members “may be or may become targets of the probe. One convicted former Massey official, David C. Hughart, alleged during a February 2013 plea hearing that Blankenship was part of a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal inspectors. Through his lawyer, Blankenship has said he did nothing wrong.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Wednesday that his office’s criminal investigation of the disaster and of Massey’s safety practices continues and “our resolve to finish it has never been stronger.”

“Our goals have been, and remain, to hold accountable anyone responsible for the conditions that led to the tragedy at UBB and to do whatever we can to ensure something like UBB never happens again,” Goodwin said.

Several people interviewed in Blankenship’s video have said that they were not informed — and even that they were directly misled — about the former Massey CEO’s role in the production.

In a statement Wednesday, United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts said, “This self-serving video is no more than a feeble effort by one millionaire to stay out of jail, and is an affront to the families of the victims.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702. ..


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