CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Don Blankenship joined a small club of executives when he was indicted Friday on federal charges in the 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 people.
The former chief executive for Massey Energy is accused of conspiring to violate safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch Mine, site of the worst US coal mining disaster in 40 years.
The explosion and investigation led to the overhaul of the way the federal government oversees mine safety.
University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett has been tracking corporate prosecutions since 2001 and has written a book on the subject, ‘‘Too Big to Jail.’’
In that span, of the 280 companies, including Massey, that escaped prosecution by agreeing to pay a fine and change their operations, just 26 of their chief executives have been charged, he said.
Blankenship, 64, who retired in December 2010, could face up to 31 years in prison if convicted. His retirement came six months before shareholders overwhelmingly approved Massey’s $7.1 billion takeover by Alpha Natural Resources.
Blankenship is scheduled for an initial hearing before a US magistrate judge in Beckley on Nov. 20.
His lawyer, William W. Taylor III, said in a statement Thursday that Blankenship ‘‘is entirely innocent of these charges. He will fight them and he will be acquitted.’’
Garrett said that chief executives are rarely prosecuted because ‘‘it can be hard to show that someone at the top knew what the people below were doing.’’
But far from being a head-in-the sand boss, the indictment portrays Blankenship as a bullying micromanager who insisted on and received daily reports that should have told him that the mines were unsafe.