Convicted Coal Mine CEO Is Taking His Case To The U.S. Supreme Court

A plaque memorializes 29 miners killed in a 2010 explosion at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia. Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship wants the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn his conviction on charges of willfully violating mine safety and health standards.

John Raby/AP

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John Raby/AP

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is marking his release from federal custody with an appeal for vindication by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Blankenship served a one-year federal prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws. The charges stemmed from the disaster at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia in 2010 that left 29 coal miners dead.

“We never give up,” says Blankenship attorney William Taylor, who notified the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday that Blankenship will petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

In his first two days of freedom, Blankenship has posted a blizzard of tweets declaring his innocence and blaming the Upper Big Branch mine disaster on federal regulators and what he says was a natural inundation of natural gas.

Multiple investigations blamed the explosion that ripped through the mine on inadequate safety protections, including excessive explosive coal dust, inadequate ventilation and worn out equipment. Federal prosecutors cited Blankenship’s micromanagement and obsessive focus on coal production in the conspiracy trial that resulted in his conviction and imprisonment. The charges were based on safety practices at Massey Energy and Upper Big Branch but were not directly related to the deadly explosion.

Blankenship’s conviction was upheld by the federal appeals court. Taylor argued that the jury instructions during Blankenship’s trial were unfair, pinning conviction on “reckless disregard” of mine safety laws rather than intent to violate the law.

As Ken Ward, Jr., reported in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the defense argued on appeal that “the government fully exploited these novel willfulness instructions to obtain a conviction for not doing enough concerning safety rather than for intending to violate the law.”

Taylor is confident the Supreme Court will take the case. “It’s a pretty clear issue,” he says. “We’re either right or wrong about that.”

Taylor also insists that the timing of the Supreme Court petition notice “has nothing to do with [Blankenship’s] incarceration status,” even though it was filed the day after Blankenship’s release, and as Blankenship took to Twitter with a spirited defense.

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Heroin Epidemic Is Driving A Spike In Hepatitis C Cases, CDC Says

Used syringes rest in a pile at a needle exchange clinic in St. Johnsbury, Vt. The CDC says needle exchanges like this one, where users can obtain clean needles, help reduce the rates of death and transmission among those suffering from hepatitis C.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The number of new Hepatitis C cases leaped nearly 300 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the CDC points to the likely culprit behind the spike in cases of the infectious disease: the use of heroin and other injection drugs.

And despite the existence of therapies that can cure more than 90 percent of infections, the organization says the disease remains a deadly threat. In 2013, for instance, the CDC says some 19,000 people died of their infections.

“Hepatitis C is associated with more deaths in the United States than 60 other infectious diseases reported to CDC combined,” the researchers write.

States that have struggled most with the unfolding opioid crisis also tended to have worst rates of new Hepatitis C infections. All of the seven states that have rates of infection at least twice the national average — Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Tennessee and West Virginia — have seen a statistically significant increase in drug overdose deaths in recent years, as well.

The CDC evinces little doubt that statistics like these are intimately related.

“Injection drug use is the primary risk factor for new HCV infections,” the researchers write, referring to the disease by its initials and recommending that lawmakers “create and strengthen public health laws” to fight the disease.

In particular, the CDC says some of the best ways to combat its spread are ways to boost access to clean needles — such as syringe exchange programs and decriminalization of the possession of paraphernalia.

“State laws that increase access to syringe exchange programs and clean needles and syringes, and policies that facilitate access to HCV treatment through state Medicaid programs can reduce HCV transmission risk,” the CDC says.

Of all 50 states, the CDC found that only Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington had both a “comprehensive set of laws and a permissive Medicaid treatment policy that might affect access to both HCV preventive and treatment services for persons who inject drugs.”

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Superbugs 'Crawled Out' Of The Ocean 450 Million Years Ago

The ancestors of modern hospital superbugs may have lived in the guts of ancient land animals.

Mark Witton

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Mark Witton

About 450 million years, animals made one of the most important decisions in Earth’s history: They left the wet, nourishing seas and started living on the dry, desolate land.

At that moment, humanity’s problems with superbugs probably began.

Scientists at the Broad Institute have found evidence that an important group of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are as old as terrestrial animals themselves.

“These bugs likely lived in the very first creatures that sort of crawled out of the sea and came onto land,” says Ashlee Earl, a geneticist at the Broad Institute, who co-led the study.

During that time, these proto-superbugs seem to have picked up an arsenal of traits that helped them thrive in hospitals and even thwart some of the most common antibiotics, like penicillin, Earl and her colleagues report Thursday in the journal Cell.

“These bugs became part of these creatures’ gut microbes, just like they are part of our gut microbes today,” Earl adds.

And they were probably part of the microbiome of all the animals that have ever inhabited land over the past 450 million years or so, even the dinosaurs.

“It’s cool to think of Tyrannosaurus rex traipsing across the planet, carrying these bugs in its gut,” Earl says. “But we think that’s very likely.”

The superbug we’re talking is a little guy called Enterococci. And it’s the godfather of superbugs. Because back in the ’80s, Enterococci bacteria were one of the first pathogens to become resistant to almost all the antibiotics available.

“That was really the dawn of the superbug era,” says the Broad Institute’s Michael Gilmore, who also co-led the study.

Today Enterococci bacteria have become a major source of hospital infections in the U.S. The microbes sicken nearly 70,000 Americans and kill more than 1,000 each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

And Gilmore wondered why?

“Why, out of the thousand or so species of bacteria that live in our guts, have Enterococci become a superbug? What makes Enterococci special?” Gilmore wondered.

To figure it out, he and Earl sequenced the genomes of 24 species of Enterococci found in the guts of all sorts of animals, from bees and pigeons to humans and fish.

Then they sifted through the bacteria’s genes and figured out which ones were unique to Enterococci — and not found in close relatives.

“We whittled it down to about 126 genes unique to Enteroccoci,” Gilmore says.

When they looked at what those genes do, Gilmore and Earl quickly realized Enterococci’s secret weapon: “Basically, it’s like the bacteria put on a hazmat suit,” Gilmore says.

Many of these special genes are involved in hardening and fortifying the bacteria’s cell wall. “They help make the bacteria rugged and able to withstand drying out and exposure to disinfectants,” Gilmore says.

And the data suggest the superbug picked up this “hazmat suit” 450 million years ago when animals were just beginning to colonize land — probably to help them survive the transition from living in marine animals to leaving in land animals.

Gilmore says he came up with hypothesis while remembering his pet goldfish. “I was thinking about that little string of poop that would come out of the fish,” he says. “Remember, these are bacteria that live in the guts of animals, but sometimes they are excreted out in feces.”

When the excretion happens in the ocean, the bacteria end up in an environment that’s not too different than an animals’ gut — at the bottom of the ocean floor — where it’s moist and filled with nutrients.

But when bacteria are excreted out onto land, they find themselves in a much harsher environment.

“They are exposed to U.V. light, baked in sun and often end up starving and drying up,” Gilmore says. So to survive, they needed to develop a hazmat suit.

And today, that same suit — which helped Enterococci conquer land — is helping them conquer another frontier: hospitals.

Their ability to withstand drying out, starvation and harsh chemicals helps them to survive on a hospital table or curtain — and even resist disinfectants and detergents.

“This ability has predisposed them to becoming superbugs,” Gilmore says.

Now that we have the blueprints to their hazmat suit, we can start finding ways to compromise it.

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'Rolling Stone' Founder Jann Wenner On 50 Years Of Rock And Roll History

Jann Wenner, pictured in 1968, one year after founding Rolling Stone magazine.
  • Jann Wenner, pictured in 1968, one year after founding Rolling Stone magazine.

    Gene Anthony/Wolfgang’s Vault/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Pete Townshend of The Who performs at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Calif., photographed for Rolling Stone in 1967.

    Pete Townshend of The Who performs at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Calif., photographed for Rolling Stone in 1967.

    Baron Wolman/Iconic Images/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Michael Jackson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1971.

    Michael Jackson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1971.

    Henry Diltz/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Tina Turner, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1984.

    Tina Turner, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1984.

    Steven Meisel/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Madonna, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1987.

    Madonna, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1987.

    Herb Ritts/Trunk of Abrams Books

  • Nirvana, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1992.

    Nirvana, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1992.

    Mark Seliger/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1993.

    Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1993.

    Mark Seliger/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Marilyn Manson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1996.

    Marilyn Manson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1996.

    Matt Mahurin/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Willie Nelson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1996.

    Willie Nelson, photographed for Rolling Stone in 1996.

    Mark Seliger/Courtesy of Abrams Books

  • Adele, photographed for Rolling Stone in 2015.

    Adele, photographed for Rolling Stone in 2015.

    Theo Wenner/Courtesy of Abrams Books

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Rolling Stone magazine turns 50 this year, and co-founder Jann Wenner has written the foreword to a new book celebrating the anniversary. Wenner started Rolling Stone in San Francisco in 1967 with $7,500 of borrowed money, donated office space and some used typewriters. He was a 21-year-old Berkeley dropout who was into all the great music coming out in the year of the “Summer of Love” — and he wanted to create a magazine that took rock and roll seriously.

“You couldn’t read about it in Time magazine, you don’t read about it in newspapers, it wasn’t on TV, there were no movies — it just was considered somewhat rude and very much a teenage-girl phenomenon,” Wenner tells NPR’s Kelly McEvers.

In other words, rock and roll wasn’t getting the respect Wenner felt it deserved, given the place it occupied in the nation’s culture. Baby boomers were just starting to enter college, to become the best educated and most affluent generation the U.S. had ever seen — and music was an inextricable part of the lives of that generation.

“As it came of age, it had rock and roll as the glue that held that all together,” Wenner says. “[Rock and roll] was kind of the tribal telegraph, [through] which ideas about the world were being shared, and ideas about the American experience were being informally passed around.

On the aftermath of the magazine’s discredited 2014 article that recounted a gang rape at the University of Virginia

We commissioned the Columbia School of Journalism to do an investigation of it, of what happened and what we did wrong, and we published that openly. And I think that we never really lost any readers’ trust because of it. I think we’ve got an outstanding record of 50 years of great journalism, and in the course of 50 years, sometimes you make a mistake, sometimes you screw up. And we screwed up. We are not alone; that just happens when you’re doing this kind of thing, when you’re in journalism — whether you’re the New York Times or anything. [Kelly McEvers: Do you feel like you were too slow to admit that you screwed up?]I think we — no, I don’t. We wanted to understand it first.

On criticism that Rolling Stone cozies up to celebrities at the expense of journalistic rigor

The people we cover who are in the world of arts — we don’t view as adversaries. We view artists as people who should be celebrated, critiqued if necessary, supported — we view ourselves as advocates for people like Bob Dylan and Nirvana and Britney Spears and whomever. They’re not politicians, they’re not people who are making faulty cars. On the other hand, when we’re talking about, you know, politics and journalism, we are fiercely independent and rigorous in what we do.

On the magazine’s continuing cultural relevance after 50 years

Of course it’s a piece of history, and we’ve covered the history very, very well. But it’s ongoing. I mean, just pick it up — it’s just as on the news and on the current culture as ever. And ahead of it.

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

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