So-Called King of Coal Gets Prison Time for Mine Blast

Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship walks into the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia December 3. Chris Tilley/Reuters

Updated | 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 violate safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, site of the blast. He was acquitted on felony charges related to 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.

Blankenship had been accused of conspiring to falsify dust samples and violating federal securities laws by lying about company safety practices. But the jury that convicted him of the misdemeanor found him not guilty of making false statements and of securities fraud. The jury had deliberated more than two weeks and had twice told Berger it was deadlocked.

Relatives of those killed and prosecutors had hailed the decision as sending a message on mine safety in coal-rich West Virginia.

Berger said Blankenship would have a 10-day period before he must surrender.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who was West Virginia governor when the disaster took place, said it had caused the state to put the safety of workers ahead of production and company profits.

"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, and I pray that this sentence brings them some closure," he said in a statement.

The death toll at Upper Big Branch, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Charleston, was the highest in a U.S. mine accident since 91 miners were killed in a 1972 fire at an Idaho silver mine.

Massey Energy was bought in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. for about $7 billion.

This article has been updated with statements from Blankenship and Manchin and other new details.