CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The former chief executive 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.
Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, who is accused of conspiring to violate safety and health standards at 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.
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. Pam Napper, whose son, Josh Napper, was among the miners killed at Upper Big Branch, said she was elated.
“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.”
In February 2013, a former longtime subordinate testified that Blankenship ordered the 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.
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 occurred.