A former coal company CEO was sentenced to one year in prison on Wednesday for conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards at a West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed in an underground explosion in 2010.
Don Blankenship, former chief executive of Massey Energy, was also sentenced to one year of supervised release and a $250,000 fine over his role in the Upper Big Branch explosion, court records showed.
It's the first time in U.S. history that a mining CEO has been jailed for a workplace safety crime, Bloomberg reported.
“If ever a case cried out for the maximum sentence, this is it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Tuesday, prior to the sentencing.
"Breaking mine safety laws kills people. Breaking mine safety laws kills coal miners,” he said. “The defendant placed human lives in jeopardy.”
Twenty-nine miners, aged 20 to 61, were killed in the April 5, 2010 explosion, which investigators later found was caused by "failures of basic safety systems" including poor ventilation systems which allowed explosive methane gas to build up in the mine.
Coal dust also fueled the blast through the mine, while poorly-maintained water sprays failed to function and quickly extinguish the ignition, leading to the worst mining disaster in 40 years..
Prosecutors said Blankenship ignored safety practices in order to speed up coal production.
Blankenship was found guilty of the misdemeanor offense by a jury in December last year, but he was cleared of securities fraud and lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wednesday's sentence was the maximum punishment possible under the law. His lawyers had argued for probation and a fine.
“We’ve been waiting for this day,” Dr. Judy Jones Peterson, whose brother, Dean Jones, was killed in the disaster told the Gazette-Mail. “It’s been a long time coming.”
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.
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