U.S. judge partly lifts gag order in West Virginia mine explosion case

By Kara Van Pelt
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massie Energy, talks with reporters near the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, April 6, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Munden

By Kara Van Pelt

BECKLEY, W.Va. (Reuters) - A federal judge in West Virginia partially lifted a gag order in a case against former Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship on charges he violated federal mine and safety laws before a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, court documents showed on Thursday.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Irene Berger in the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that documents such as opinions and orders, which do not contain information or argument related to the facts and substance of the case against Blankenship, will be unsealed.

On April 5, 2010, a blast at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners in the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

"Many families and communities within the southern district of this state were impacted by the deaths of the miners in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion," Berger said in her ruling. "Interest in this case is understandably heightened by that loss of life."

Blankenship was later charged with conspiring to violate mine safety standards, conspiring to impede mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud. He faces 31 years in prison if he is convicted.

In November, Berger issued a gag order that sealed all of the records related to the case. That gag order was challenged by several media outlets, leading to the ruling she made on Wednesday.

Berger said documents that related to the facts and substance of the case will remain sealed in order to prevent “irreparable damage” and to allow Blankenship to get a fair trial, according to her ruling.

The ruling stated that the time lapse between the 2010 tragedy and current court proceedings and a decrease in media attention "served as a buffer that reduced the risk of a tainted jury pool.

“However, given the environment and nature of the allegations, there remains a reasonable likelihood these publications could prejudice the jury selection process and, or influence the outcome of a trial,” she wrote.

Berger’s ruling does not prevent parties from talking to the press but does limit the subject matter. It also does not prevent the press from describing events that happen inside the courtroom during hearings.

The trial is expected to begin in April.

(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Eric Walsh)