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Experts debate impact of Blankenship prosecution

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As jury selection continues for the trial in the criminal case against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, mine safety advocates say such prosecutions are extremely rare and that they hope the landmark case helps discourage other coal industry executives from condoning lawbreaking in the mines.

“I think it will have a real impact that will temper the decisions of the hierarchy at coal companies,” said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer. “I think it’s a sea change. It’s just a remarkable turn of events.”

McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, led an independent team that investigated the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and blamed the deaths on a corporate culture at Massey that put production ahead of worker safety.

McAteer also had a hand in what was likely the previous highest-ranking coal executive prosecuted by the federal government.

After eight miners died in December 1992 at Southmountain Coal in Virginia, mine operator William Ridley Elkins pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. At the time, though, Southmountain was a relatively small company, compared to Massey, which had been listed as the nation’s sixth largest coal producer at the time of the Upper Big Branch.

“Historically, prosecutions of a top coal company executive for mine safety violations isn’t rare — it’s unprecedented,” said Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who served on the McAteer Upper Big Branch investigation team. McGinley outlined a number of reasons for the lack of such cases over the years…

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