CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Reuters) - Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $250,000 on Wednesday for his role in a 2010 West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 workers.
Blankenship, known as West Virginia’s “king of coal” for his rags-to-riches background and tough approach to business, was given the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor conviction by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger. He also was sentenced to a year of supervised probation after release.
Blankenship, who headed Massey from 2000 to 2010, was convicted in December of conspiring to falsify dust samples at the Upper Big Branch mine, site of the blast. He was acquitted on felony charges related to the accident.
“I want to express sorrow to the families for what happened and I hope that what I have to say can help them find peace,” Blankenship, 66, said before sentencing.
He thanked his supporters and called those who died “great coal miners.” Blankenship’s lawyers said they would appeal the sentence.
Relatives of those killed and prosecutors have hailed the conviction as sending a message on mine safety in coal-rich West Virginia.
The sentencing marks a dramatic turnaround for Blankenship, who for decades been one of West Virginia’s most influential figures. As head of Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in Appalachia, he employed thousands of people and operated more than 40 mines.
Berger said Blankenship would have a 10-day period before he must surrender.
The blast that tore through the Upper Big Branch mine, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Charleston, took place about 1,000 feet (300 m) underground and about three miles (five km) inside.
Federal investigators have said a fire caused by a methane or natural gas leak likely set off the coal dust explosion. Worn teeth on cutting equipment may have showered the area with sparks that set off the leak.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who was West Virginia governor when the disaster occurred, said it had caused the state to put the safety of workers first.
“No sentence is severe enough and no amount of time in jail time will heal the hearts of the families who have been forever devastated,” he said in a statement.
The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine accident since 91 workers died in a 1972 Idaho silver mine fire.
Massey Energy was bought in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc ANRZQ.PK for about $7 billion.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott