Ex-coal CEO fresh from prison urges Trump to probe 2010 blast

WASHINGTON, May 16 (Reuters) - A former coal executive who last week finished a yearlong prison sentence for conspiring to violate safety standards at a mine where a deadly blast occurred, has urged U.S. President Donald Trump to “get to the truth” about the incident.

Donald Blankenship, who was chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co during the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 people at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, said in a letter to Trump dated on Monday that former officials had rushed to judge the accident before an investigation was completed and that the media distorted the truth.

The letter said the Mine Safety and Health Administration cut airflow to the miners, causing natural gas to inundate the mine, and sparks from workers cutting sandstone ignited the gas.

“The truth needs to be told about what happened at UBB,” Blankenship said in the letter. “If the truth is not told, coal miners remain at risk of another tragedy.”

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

In January, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Blankenship’s effort to overturn his conviction and prison sentence.

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 then.

Blankenship also attempted to compare himself to Trump. “You and I ... share relentless and false attacks on our reputation by the liberal media,” Blankenship said in a letter, a copy of which Reuters saw.

A White House official had no comment.

Blankenship helped build Massey into Appalachia’s largest coal producer, with more than 7,000 employees and more than 40 mines.

In his letter, Blankenship urged Trump to split the MSHA into two agencies, one to regulate the industry and one to conduct investigations. He termed a measure introduced by Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, to increase the criminal liability for coal mine supervisors “a prime example of bad legislation.”

The coal industry has suffered as power producers turn to cheap natural gas to generate electricity and from environmental rules put forward by former president Barack Obama, a Democrat, that Trump, a Republican, is trying to dismantle. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)