Former Massey Energy chief Donald Blankenship pleaded not guilty to charges linked to the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers in the worst U.S. coal industry disaster in almost 40 years.
The former executive, 64, once a powerful figure in the coal industry and state politics, wore a gray business as he stood with four lawyers in federal court in Beckley, West Virginia, and said, “Not guilty.”
Blankenship is accused of hampering regulators’ safety inspections of the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County where the explosion occurred in April 2010.
The judge set a trial for Jan. 26. About 50 spectators were in the courtroom.
If the former chief executive officer is convicted of the four charges, he faces a maximum penalty of 31 years in prison, according to prosecutors.
Blankenship is accused of setting hyper-aggressive coal- production quotas and instructing subordinates to ignore basic safety measures, such as controlling explosive coal dust and providing proper ventilation in the mines.
In an indictment, federal prosecutors said evidence shows Blankenship routinely instructed company executives to focus on coal production rather than safety.
Prosecutors said the company threatened workers to keep them from reporting violations. They also contend Blankenship ordered executives to set up a system to alert managers and miners when federal inspectors were onsite to allow safety violations to be hidden.
Blankenship stepped down as Massey’s top executive in December 2010 with a $12 million retirement package. The coal company was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. in 2011 for $7.1 billion.
Blankenship was a major power in the coal industry and West Virginia politics, said Pat McGinley, a law professor at the University of West Virginia. Blankenship bankrolled Republican candidates for the Legislature, and his campaign contributions had an impact on the state Supreme Court, McGinley said.
“Some people active in the coal industry thought he was a disruptive force, but they were afraid to oppose him,” McGinley said.
Blankenship no longer has such influence, he said. “That was over when the Upper Big Branch mine exploded.”
The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Beckley).
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