November 20, 2014 / 10:08 PM / in 3 years

Massey ex-CEO pleads not guilty in fatal W. Virginia mine blast

BECKLEY, W.Va., Nov 20 (Reuters) - A former chief executive of Massey Energy Co pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges he violated federal mine safety laws before a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

Donald Blankenship, who headed Massey from 2000 to 2010, was released on a $5 million cash bond after a hearing in U.S. District Court. Trial was set for Jan. 26.

“Not guilty,” Blankenship told Magistrate Clarke Van Dervort. He appeared relaxed during the hearing, glancing at families of victims in court, chatting freely with his attorney and draping an arm over a chair back.

Blankenship was ordered to turn over his passport. His travel was restricted to the federal court’s district in West Virginia and to Washington and Pike County, Kentucky.

Blankenship has “substantial motive and means to flee,” Van Dervort said. Both sides are under a judicial gag order.

A federal grand jury charged Blankenship last week with four criminal counts stemming from the April 5, 2010, blast at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine.

Blankenship faces a maximum 31 years in prison if convicted on all charges. The now-closed mine was about 40 miles south of Charleston, the state capital.

Massey was bought in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion. Alpha Natural was not accused of wrongdoing.

According to the indictment, from January 2008 to April 2010 Blankenship knew about and could have stopped hundreds of safety law violations occurring each year at Upper Big Branch.

Blankenship allegedly conspired to tip off workers about inspections so they could cover up violations. The indictment also said that after the explosion, he misled the Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety practices.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to violate mine safety standards, conspiring to impede mine safety officials, making false statements to the SEC and securities fraud.

According the indictment, Blankenship, a powerful advocate for the coal industry, received $17.8 million in compensation in 2009.

In December 2011, Alpha Natural agreed to pay $209 million to settle criminal and civil charges over the explosion, including $1.5 million to each family of the miners who died.

Former mine superintendent Gary May pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. He was sentenced in January 2013 to 21 months in prison. (Editing by Ian Simpson and Dan Grebler)

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