Upper Big Branch

On April 5, 2010, the day after Easter, a series of explosions rocked the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, Raleigh County. Twenty-nine men were killed, and another man was seriously injured.

An independent investigation, determined that sparks from the longwall miner ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball. The fireball sparked a series of explosions that traveled for more than two miles through the mine. The panel also concluded that the explosions could have been prevented and that systems that were designed to protect miners—such as adequate ventilation in the mine—had failed. The report placed the blame on Massey Energy, the mine's owner, saying the company operated its mines in a “profoundly reckless manner.”

Massey and its president, Don Blankenship, faced a barrage of criticism after the disaster.  Alpha Natural Resources, which purchased Massey in June 2011, was fined nearly $11 million in civil penalties, part of a total settlement of $210 million.

Don Blankenship was tried on criminal charges in federal court in Charleston in the fall of 2015. He was convicted on a misdemeanor count and found not guilty on felony charges. On April 6, 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. He entered prison in California in May 2016.

West Virginia Morning
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On this West Virginia Morning, we hear about a new play that honors those who lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster 10 years ago. We also bring you the latest updates on coronavirus in West Virginia.

Coal Country: Can A Play About A Mine Disaster Help Bridge A National Divide?

Apr 5, 2020
Joan Marcus / The Public Theater

 

The actors deliver their lines from a sparse stage — just a few benches around them and 29 modest lights above. For the most part they speak directly to the audience, sharing memories of the lives of husbands, sons, fathers and nephews, some of the 29 men who died on April 5, 2010, when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.  

It’s a powerful performance, made even more so by the realization that nearly all of the actors’ dialogue is drawn directly from court transcripts and hours of interviews with about a half dozen people who lived through that tragic day and the many long days that followed.

“Coal Country,” which opened in New York’s storied Public Theater, introduced New York theater-goers to the real lives of families affected by the tragedy.

John Raby / AP file photo

A planned public gathering was shelved on the 10th anniversary of the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades. Heartfelt speeches gave way Sunday to silent remembrances and individual prayers for the 29 men who died at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Howard Berkes / NPR

Ten years ago, on April 5, 2010, 29 men who worked at an underground coal mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, lost their lives. The Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group, Inc. has placed wreaths at the monument in Raleigh County on April 5 every year since. But this year, they aren’t encouraging family members to visit, due to the spread of COVID-19.

Just about a decade ago — April 5, 2010 at about 3:30 in the afternoon — an explosion fueled by methane and coal dust ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and killed 29 miners. A new play at New York's Public Theater called Coal Country tells the story of what happened at Upper Big Branch in the words of miners who survived the blast and family members of those who didn't.

Blankenship Trial
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

A federal judge has denied a request by former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship to overturn his criminal conviction for his role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. 

Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

A federal judge Monday entered an order recommending former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's conviction for his role in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion be set aside.

Blankenship served a one-year prison sentence for a misdemeanor charge for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. The April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia killed 29 men.

Michelle Hanks

What is the human impact of a failure to prioritize workplace safety? In this episode, we’ll explore how weak regulatory laws, and a failure to prioritize worker safety, may be contributing to more deaths, and a higher risk of workplace accidents -- both at the state and national levels. 


Blankenship Trial
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

Attorneys for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship are seeking to erase his misdemeanor conviction related to the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades. A former lead prosecutor called it a desperate act.

A motion filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston claims federal prosecutors withheld information that would have assisted in Blankenship's defense at his lengthy 2015 trial. It said the government produced reports and other information after the trial's completion.

Upper Big Branch Mine
Jon C. Hancock / AP Photo

A lawsuit filed by a miner’s widow says the Mine Safety and Health Administration didn’t do enough to stop the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

A former coal company CEO who served a one-year prison term on charges related to the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades is kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign with a town hall meeting for voters.

Ex-Massey Energy boss Don Blankenship is scheduled to attend the meeting Thursday night at the Chief Logan Lodge, Hotel and Conference Center in Logan. Blankenship has said he wants to tell voters why he's the best candidate. A news conference is planned afterward.

AP Photo

The Supreme Court is leaving in place the conviction of ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for misdemeanor conspiracy to violate federal safety standards at a West Virginia mine where 29 miners died in 2010.

Blankenship Trial
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

Attorneys for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship have made a last pitch to the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out his conviction connected to a 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners.

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is finishing up a one-year federal prison sentence arising from the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website, Blankenship was set to be released Wednesday from a halfway house in Phoenix, Arizona. He must serve one year of supervised release.

UBB Mine Disaster
E-WV / WV Humanities Council

On April 5, 2010, the day after Easter, a series of explosions rocked the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County.

Twenty-nine men died, making it West Virginia’s worst mining disaster since 78 miners were killed at Farmington in 1968.

After the Upper Big Branch explosion, an independent investigation determined that sparks from a longwall miner had ignited a pocket of methane, setting off a chain of explosions that surged more than two miles through the mine.

Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been moved to a halfway house as he nears the completion of his federal prison sentence.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that Blankenship has been placed in a halfway house in Phoenix, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website.

Flood, Clendenin
Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A National Weather Service meteorologist called it a "1-in-1,000-year" storm. By the time it was over, 23 West Virginians were dead.

Flooding that ravaged the state in late June was voted the No. 1 news story in 2016 in West Virginia by Associated Press member newspapers and broadcasters.

West Virginia Morning
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On West Virginia Morning, Ashton Marra joins host Beth Vorhees to discuss the appeal hearing in the case of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and Glynis Board visits a lab in the Northern Panhandle that is making new products out of coal.

That’s on West Virginia Morning from West Virginia Public Broadcasting – telling West Virginia’s story.

Don Blankenship
Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Attorneys for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship are hoping to convince an appeals court their client was wrongly sent to prison.

Blankenship ran the coal company that owned West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 men. He's currently serving a one-year sentence after being convicted of conspiracy for what prosecutors call a series of willful safety violations at the company.

AP Photo

A defiant Don Blankenship declared himself an "American political prisoner" on his blog, blaming others for the 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men and landed the former West Virginia coal operator in federal prison.

The ex-Massey Energy CEO posted the 67-page booklet Tuesday and said he'll distribute it to 250,000 people.


AP Photo

Coal industry groups are concerned that the conviction of former coal executive Don Blankenship could expose other industry leaders to criminal conspiracy charges.

Coal Associations from Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia shared concerns in a brief Tuesday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering Blankenship's appeal.

Upper Big Branch Mine
Jon C. Hancock / AP Photo

A man has been reported missing after authorities say he went to steal copper from a shuttered West Virginia mine that had been the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

Don Blankenship
Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Prosecutors are urging a federal appeals court not to allow former coal company executive Don Blankenship to remain free while the court considers an appeal.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that government lawyers say allowing the ex-Massey Energy CEO to continue his $1 million bail would be contrary to federal law. They say the law allows appeals to delay jail sentences only in "exceptional circumstances." Blankenship is scheduled to report to prison May 12.

Blankenship
Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A former coal company executive is asking an appeals court if he can remain free while appealing a case that dealt him a prison sentence.

Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship on Tuesday asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to let him remain free on $1 million bond, pending appeal. Otherwise, Blankenship's attorneys say he may serve much, or all, of his one-year sentence before a larger appellate decision is reached.

Blankenship
Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship received the maximum sentence for his misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. His sentence- one year in prison and a $250,000 fine- was the maximum that could be order by a federal judge.

In this episode of Blankenship on Trial, host Scott Finn discuss what it was like both inside and outside the courtroom Wednesday with Ashton Marra, West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Assistant News Director, and Mike Hissam, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and partner at the Charleston law firm Bailey & Glasser.

Don Blankenship
Tyler Evert / AP Photo

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been sentenced to the maximum one year in prison and another year of supervised release for his role in a conspiracy at the company to skirt mine safety standards. Judge Irene Berger also imposed a maximum $250,000 fine, which is due immediately.

Blankenship was convicted in December of conspiring to willfully violate federal mine safety laws--a misdemeanor. The charge stemmed from an investigation into the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal that killed 29 men.

On West Virginia Morning, Ashton Marra continues her conversation with the sisters of one of the miners killed six years ago this week in the Upper Big Branch mine and what they will tell the judge this morning at the sentencing of Don Blankenship, who’s company owned the mine.

Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On Wednesday morning, a federal judge will decide whether former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will serve prison time or face a monetary fine after being convicted of a misdemeanor. 

Blankenship was found guilty of conspiring to willfully violate federal mine safety laws in December, but one miner's family says even the prison time will not bring complete closure.

On West Virginia Morning, Ashton Marra talks with the sisters of one of the miners killed six years ago today at the Upper Big Branch mine.  Also, Roxy Todd talks with Catherine Moore about her radio documentary that airs tonight. 

These stories coming up on West Virginia Morning from West Virginia Public Broadcasting – telling West Virginia’s story.

Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On April 5, 2010, Howard "Boone" Payne went to work at the Upper Big Branch mine just as he had for years. He and 28 other men made their way miles underground to the mine's long wall operation, spent hours mining coal, and prepared to wrap up their day when the unthinkable happened- an explosion that took all of their lives.

Six years later, Boone's sisters Shirley Whitt and Sherry Keeney Depoy say there is still a void left in their family that cannot be filled. 

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