Don Blankenship, ex-CEO of Massey Energy, indicted in mine explosion that killed 29

The former CEO who oversaw the West Virginia mine that exploded in 2010, killing 29 people, was indicted Thursday on federal charges related to a safety investigation that followed the blast.

Mine made 'systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts' to conceal life-threatening problems

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is facing several charges related to a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 people. The charges include conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards and conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The former CEO who oversaw the West Virginia mine that exploded in 2010, killing 29 people, was indicted Thursday on federal charges related to a safety investigation that followed the blast.

Don Blankenship, who is accused of conspiring to violate safety and health standards at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, is the highest-ranking executive to face charges in the blast. The explosion and investigation afterward led to the overhaul of the way the federal government oversees mine safety.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said a federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on charges including conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud.

Blankenship could face up to 31 years in prison if convicted.

'He will be acquitted,' says lawyer

His attorney, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement that Blankenship "is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them, and he will be acquitted."

"Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety," the statement said. "His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated."

News about Blankenship's indictment spread fast in the mining community. Pam Napper, whose son, Josh, was among the miners killed at Upper Big Branch, said she was elated.

Pam Napper and her daughter, Jenna Leigh, are consoled by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. Napper, whose husband, Josh, was killed in the 2010 explosion, was relieved to hear of Blankenship's indictment. 'It's about time,' she said. (Jeff Gentner/Associated Press)
"I think it's about time," Napper said. "He was a big part of this. He knew what was going on in that mine and continued to let it go. I hope he gets what he deserves. I am so excited. They aren't sad tears today. They're happy tears."

In February 2013, a former longtime subordinate testified that Blankenship ordered the widespread corporate practice of warning coal miners about surprise federal inspections. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause of the blast was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for themselves and a sanitized one for regulators.

Broken water sprayers turn minor flare into inferno

The indictment says Blankenship conspired to violate mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch from January 2008 until April 2010, when the explosion tore through the mine.

After the explosion, Blankenship made false statements and representations to the SEC concerning Massey Energy's safety practices before the explosion. He made similar statements in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock, the indictment said.

Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $7.1 billion US in June 2012. Blankenship, who retired ahead of the merger, has denied any wrongdoing.

Four investigations into the Upper Big Branch explosion found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.

People from the coal mining towns along the Coal River participate in a memorial vigil in Naoma, W.Va., for the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion one year after the event. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

Former White Buck Coal Co. president David Hughart testified about Blankenship's alleged actions as he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges as part of the investigation. Hughart, who never worked at Upper Big Branch, was eventually sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for his role.

Former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May was sentenced last year to two years and nine months in prison on charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine, including disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records. May co-operated with prosecutors in their criminal investigation of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

May had testified at the February 2012 sentencing of former Massey security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, who was sent to prison for three years for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents. It was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case.