Don Blankenship Massey Energy
Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, talks with reporters near the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 6, 2010, the day after a deadly explosion killed 29 miners. Reuters

A federal grand jury has indicted Don Blankenship, the former CEO of coal miner Massey Energy, on charges related to a deadly 2010 explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch, UBB, mine in West Virginia. The indictment accuses Blankenship of conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health rules and for lying to shareholders about Massey’s safety practices prior to the blast that killed 29 miners.

“Blankenship knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing,” according to the indictment filed on Thursday. “Yet he fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations, in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws and make more money.”

“It is an important day for many, many families in the central Appalachian coal fields,” Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has fought Blankenship on behalf of miners’ widows, told the Charleston Gazette, a major West Virginia newspaper. “For the first time in my memory, the CEO of a major coal producer is being held criminally accountable for the atrocious conduct that occurred on his watch.”

Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement that, “Mr. Blankenship is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them, and he will be acquitted.” The four-count indictment, filed in U.S. District Court, carries a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment.

The indictment alleges that from Jan. 1, 2008, to April 9, 2010, Blankenship conspired to commit “routine, willful violations” of mandatory rules for mine safety and health standards at the UBB mine. He also conspired to “impede and hinder” the work of federal mine safety inspectors by warning mine operators ahead of inspections “so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed,” according to the indictment.

Blankenship was also accused of lying to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety practices prior to the April 5 explosion, which was considered the deadliest blast in a generation. The indictment further alleges that, after the disaster, Blankenship made false statements and representations regarding the purchase and sale of Massey stock.

Massey was acquired by its competitor, Alpha Natural Resources Inc., for $7.1 billion in January 2011. Alpha also settled Massey’s potential criminal liabilities for $209 million in December that year.