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By Kara Van Pelt

CHARLESTON, W. Va. (Reuters) — Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship was found guilty in federal court on Thursday of conspiring to violate safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 blast that killed 29 people.

Relatives of those killed and prosecutors hailed the decision as sending a message on mine safety in coal-rich West Virginia even though the jury found Blankenship not guilty of making false statements and of securities fraud.

One of Blankenship’s lawyers, Bill Taylor, told reporters the defense team was disappointed by the misdemeanor conviction but doubted Blankenship would serve any time in prison. Sentencing was set for March 23 in U.S. District Court.

Blankenship, 65, faces a maximum $250,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told reporters he was not disappointed with the verdict. “It brings justice that is long overdue,” he said.

The jury had deliberated more than two weeks and had twice told Judge Irene Berger it was deadlocked. Blankenship’s lawyers did not present a single witness.

Berger moved the trial from Beckley, near the site of the mine, after Blankenship’s lawyers complained he could not get a fair trial there because of intense pre-trial publicity.

He had been accused of conspiring to falsify dust samples and violating federal securities laws by lying about company safety practices. Blankenship led Massey from 2000 to 2010 and is free on a $5 million cash bond.

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.

Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother was among the 29 men who died at Upper Big Branch, said the decision had put coal mine executives and operators on notice about safety.

“Even though Blankenship wasn’t convicted of all charges, he is guilty of reckless disregard of human life and the loss of 29 souls through reckless disregard and negligent homicide through just his greed,” she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said the core of the case dealt with violation of mine safety laws.

“It is a misdemeanor but a critical part of justice is accountability. The fact we were able to obtain that kind of justice today is a great victory,” he said.

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

(Reporting by Kara Van Pelt; Editing by Ian Simpson, Bernard Orr)

Photo: 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

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