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Ex-Massey Energy boss charged in coal mine disaster

Donald Blankenship Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Blankenship left Massey at the end of 2010, and the company was later absorbed by Alpha Resources

Donald Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, has been indicted for his role in a 2010 West Virginia coal mine explosion - the US's worst coal disaster in 40 years.

Mr Blankenship was indicted on four criminal counts for deceiving federal investigators about safety violations at the company's Upper Big Branch mine.

If convicted, he could face up to 31 years in prison.

His lawyer said he was entirely innocent of the charges.

"He will fight them, and he will be acquitted. Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety. His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment," said William Taylor, Mr Blankenship's lawyer, in a statement.

"He will not yield to their effort to silence him."

Coal country

The Upper Big Branch mine, located near Montcoal, West Virginia, exploded on 5 April 2010, killing 29 men who were trapped more than 1,200 feet below the surface.

In 2011, an investigation by the US regulator charged with mine safety found that the accident was preventable and was the result of numerous safety violations.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The mine exploded as a result of trapped methane gas, killing 29 miners who were working underground

That same year, Massey Energy paid $209m in criminal penalties to the US Department of Justice to settle the more than 300 safety violations found at the mine.

Two other former Massey employees have pleaded guilty to thwarting attempts by US regulators to inspect the mine.

Mr Blankenship is accused of ignoring safety violations "in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money", according to the indictment.

The indictment also says that he lied to the US Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey's safety practices and stock purchases.

Mr Blankenship suddenly left Massey Energy in December 2010 due to a dispute over a bond sale, and the company was later absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The president of the United Mine Workers council said the indictment was a helpful step for families

In a statement, United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts said the indictment was a helpful step for families looking for justice.

"Today's announcement...means that the families...are one step closer to a measure of justice," he said.

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