CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A judge sentenced former coal executive Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades, saying he was part of a "dangerous conspiracy."
One day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the ex-Massey Energy CEO the maximum prison time and fined him the maximum of $250,000.
"This is a clear case of the punishment not fitting the crime," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez a statement Thursday. "The criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners' lives at risk. This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck."
A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch.
The judge talked about Blankenship's resume and said: "Instead of being to be able to tout you as a success story, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy."
Blankenship spoke briefly and said he wanted to reassure the families of the fallen miners that they were "great guys, great coal miners."
"It is important to everyone that you know that I'm not guilty of a crime," Blankenship said.
Blankenship's attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. They promised to appeal the sentence.
The sentencing caps a wide-spanning investigation into Massey following the explosion. Four others up the Massey corporate chain were convicted before Blankenship.
Blankenship was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years.
The judge already ruled that Blankenship won't have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, helping him avoid a serious blow to his personal fortune. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 after the explosion, and wanted Blankenship to pay legal fees it covered for former Massey employees, costs to cooperate with the investigation and mine safety fines incurred at Upper Big Branch.
Berger also ruled that Blankenship would not have to pay restitution to about 100 people, including former miners and family members.