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Monday, December 1, 2014

West Virginia Coal Country Sees New Era as Donald Blankenship Is Indicted

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WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — On a memorial to West Virginia’s most recent mining disaster, the silhouettes of 29 figures are etched into black granite, men posed with arms around each another like teammates.

On the back of the solemn slab, the disaster is put in the context of the state’s long history of coal tragedies, including a 1968 explosion that killed scores, and a dozen other deadly events earlier in the century.

In not one of those cases did a coal mine owner face criminal charges for the loss of life. That history ended in November, with the indictment of Donald L. Blankenship, the chief executive whose company owned the Upper Big Branch mine near here, where an explosion of methane gas in 2010 spread like a fireball through more than two miles of tunnels, feeding on illegally high levels of coal dust.

Legal experts call the case against Mr. Blankenship, a figure both feared and renowned for his power in West Virginia, a turning point after a century in which the power of coal barons over politicians, courts and the economy protected them.“Those responsible for managing mines in a way that caused multiple deaths were never held responsible,” said Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University. “It shocks the conscience.”

The Charleston Gazette, a newspaper with a history of reporting on coal’s costs to the state, said simply, “This indictment is momentous.”

Neither Mr. Blankenship nor his attorney,...
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