Massey Energy chief indicted after deadly 2010 mine blast

Former chief of Massey Energy Don Blankenship pauses as he testifies during a hearing on May 20, 2010 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Alex Wong)

Washington (AFP) - The former chief of Massey Energy was indicted on four charges Thursday for his role in one of the worst mining disasters in US history, including conspiracy, fraud and making false statements, the justice department said.

Don Blankenship was the head of Massey Energy in 2010 when a powerful explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia and left 29 people dead.

Following a decision by a grand jury, Blankenship is indicted on charges of violating health and safety regulations, impeding federal safety officials and lying to authorities after the accident, the US Department of Justice said.

If found guilty, Blankenship could face up to 31 years in jail.

According to US Attorney Booth Goodwin, from about January 1, 2008 to around April 9, 2010 Blankenship is suspected of intentionally skirting safety regulations, the statement said.

"Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards."

The US justice department also alleges that Blankenship was part of a plot to prevent federal safety officials from carrying out their work at the mine to "conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed."

Blankenship is accused of lying after the explosion to US Securities and Exchange Commission to conceal Massey Energy's safety practices.

The indicted alleges he also lied "in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock" following the explosion.

An independent investigation in 2011 said Blankenship failed to implement proper safety standards at the mine and concluded the accident "was the result of failures of basic safety systems."

The investigation found that an inadequate ventilation system at the mine allowed explosive gases to build up, while water sprays were not properly maintained and failed to extinguish a spark that caused the blast 1,000 feet (305 meters) beneath the surface.