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Court upholds conviction of Massey Energy ex-CEO in fatal mine blast

Massey Energy

Don Blankenship, ex-CEO of Massy Energy, argued his 2015 conviction on a misdemeanour conspiracy charge should be voided due to technical errors and mistakes made by the presiding judge. Reuters photo by Mike Munden.

2010 Massey Energy blast killed 29 workers

By Jonathan Stempel

Jan 19 (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected former Massey Energy Co Chief Executive Officer Donald Blankenship’s bid to overturn his conviction and one-year prison sentence related to his role in a 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers.

The decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals likely means Blankenship will remain in prison at least until he is eligible for release on May 10. Blankenship led Massey from 2000 to 2010 and is the most prominent U.S. coal executive convicted of a crime related to miners’ deaths.

Blankenship, 66, argued that his December 2015 conviction on a misdemeanor conspiracy charge should be voided because the federal indictment did not specify which U.S. mine safety regulations he conspired to violate, and because of several errors by the trial judge.

But the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court said the indictment was sufficiently detailed, and that the trial judge did not commit reversible error when instructing jurors about the meaning of “willfully” violating mine safety regulations.

Contrary to Blankenship’s position, a mine operator is not immune from criminal liability “by characterizing his mine’s repeated failure to comply with safety laws as a consequence of tough decisions he had to make weighing production, safety, and regulatory compliance,” Circuit Judge James Wynn wrote.

A lawyer for Blankenship did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The office of U.S. Attorney Carol Casto in Charleston, West Virginia, had no immediate comment.

The fire caused by a methane or natural gas leak likely set off the fatal April 2010 blast at Massey’s now-closed Upper Big Branch mine, located about 40 miles (65 km) south of Charleston, according to federal investigators.

The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine accident since 91 workers died in a 1972 Idaho silver mine fire.

Blankenship was also fined $250,000 in connection with his conviction. He was acquitted on related felony charges.

Once known as West Virginia’s “king of coal” for his working-class background and tough approach to business, Blankenship helped build Massey into Appalachia’s largest coal producer, with more than 7,000 employees and more than 40 mines.

Massey was acquired in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion. Alpha Natural filed for bankruptcy in August 2015 amid a coal industry slowdown, and emerged last July.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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