- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. (AP) - A 48-foot black granite monument with life-size silhouettes of 29 fallen miners defines this small Appalachian town, just downhill from the site of one of the deadliest U.S. mine disasters.

Survivors and friends of those who couldn’t escape the underground inferno were deeply frustrated Friday by the misdemeanor conviction of coal executive and political powerbroker Don Blankenship, who ran the Upper Big Branch Mine as Massey Energy’s chief executive.

He was found guilty Thursday of conspiring to violate mine safety rules, punishable by less than a year in prison, but was acquitted on felonies that might have put him behind bars for 30 years.

In this community of about 500 people in southern West Virginia, where the dying coal industry has made jobs scarce and poverty endemic, the result seemed like another lump on a heap of despair.

“It’s a shame that all they found him guilty of was a misdemeanor. It was for naught,” retired carpenter Glenn Thompson said as he paused at the memorial after buying a loaf of bread. “I guess the only thing we can do is to put our trust in God and go on. He’s going to have to stand before God one day and give an account for his actions.”

Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean Jones was among those killed, said she felt vindicated even as she directed her ire at Blankenship: “Although you may not be judged responsible by the courts of this land, you are guilty. The blood of these 29 people is on your hands.”

Blankenship’s indictment in November 2014 raised some hopes in town, but Jamie Amick said most of the customers at her gas station and convenience store in Whitesville were convinced he would escape justice.

After all, this was the coal baron who defeated unions, donated millions to unseat Democrats and routinely thwarted regulators over hundreds of safety and environmental rules his mines broke while growing Massey Energy’s revenues to $2.3 billion. His notoriety grew when he spent $3.5 million to overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey by funding a campaign to replace a state Supreme Court justice.

“They said that he has too much money and he’s going to get off - and that’s what happened,” Amick said. “Everybody around here was wanting him to be put underneath the jail and the key thrown away.”

Blankenship’s defense team didn’t bother trying to make him seem like a nice guy. In closing arguments, his lead attorney, William Taylor, called him insulting, rude and a tough boss.

Prosecutors played phone calls Blankenship had secretly recorded in his office, in which he said preventing black lung wasn’t worth the effort regulators put into it, complained that board members wanted to pay him only $12 million one year, and said a scathing internal safety review should remain confidential because it would be terrible if lawyers were to discover it in the event of a death in the mine.

Four lower-ranking Massey employees were convicted of felonies. Not so Blankenship, who persuaded a judge that Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the disaster, should have to pay his legal fees.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Blankenship’s conviction “sends a powerful message to executives who would ignore the safety of their workers.”

But some who monitor coal for a living say the industry is already too far gone for the verdict to have much impact.

“If a verdict of this nature was going to send a message, it would’ve been a lot more powerful message had it happened 20 or 25 years ago, when coal was booming,” said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and attorney in Lexington, Kentucky, representing miners.

Fewer than 80,000 coal miners still work in the U.S., a tenth of the 1920s workforce. They produce nearly twice as much coal, but their future is grim: coal employment in West Virginia peaked at 130,000 miners in 1940 and was down to about 18,200 last year.

The Upper Big Branch Mine stretched across two counties in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country, crisscrossed with railroad tracks to haul people and equipment through 19 openings. About 200 miners worked the seam on different shifts, until broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno on April 5, 2010.

Stanley “Goose” Stewart was able to run out one of the shafts. He was 300 feet into the mine in a rail car at the start of his shift when a blast of air hit him.

“I said, ‘whoa, this ain’t good,’” Stewart said.

He attended more funerals than he cared to count, and hasn’t been inside a mine since. Now retired, he focuses on his garden, raises chickens, hunts and fishes - anything to keep his mind off the mine.

“The best thing is, at least it’s done. It’s finished. He did get a conviction,” said Stewart, who cried on the stand as he testified for the prosecution. “At least he does have a smear against him that he’ll have to take to his grave.”

Manuel Arvon remembers the ambulances, the sirens, the police cars flying by his floral shop, the governor and federal mine safety officials coming to town. The explosion was devastating, and “will have an everlasting effect upon the community, for those who lived through it, at least,” he said. “Of course, for the new generation, it will be but a memory.”

The area’s hopes now center on the steady hum of passing trucks carrying coal from mines that remain open. Signs around Whitesville proclaim “Let’s turn this town around in 2015.”

But that seems unlikely. Many of the shops are boarded up in the town, which is squeezed between hills, rails, the Coal River and Coal River Road. There’s a pizza shop and a pharmacy, but many homes are up for sale, and there are plenty of vacancies at the Mountain View Apartments.

“It doesn’t look good,” Arvon said. “We don’t even have a food store. It’s a depressing area. Most of the young people who have any options are usually leaving.”

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Mattise reported from Charleston, W.Va.

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