By Kara Van Pelt
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Reuters) - The former Massey Energy Co chief executive being tried over a 2010 coal mine explosion that killed 29 people was a hands-on boss who covered up widespread safety violations, a U.S. prosecutor said on Wednesday in the trial's opening arguments.
But a defense lawyer for the executive, Don Blankenship, described him as a scapegoat who was unfairly blamed for the blast at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine.
Blankenship faces three felony counts in U.S. District Court for allegedly ignoring hundreds of safety breaches and conspiring to cover up violations. The blast was the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said Blankenship was personally involved in low-level details at the mine. He knew of hundreds of safety violations but participated in taking steps to avoid getting caught by inspectors, he said.
Ruby said evidence would show that Blankenship ordered workers to fake coal dust samples and alerted miners of surprise inspections. He also approved the firing of miners who ensured safety standards.
He said recorded phone calls and letters hand-written by Blankenship would back up the charges.
In one letter, Blankenship wrote, "We need to pay attention to what I want to do and need to make sure it happens exactly the way I want it to happen and that's what you're paid to do," Ruby said.
Defense attorney Bill Taylor told jurors that many of the examples cited by Ruby were taken out of context and Blankenship had put several safety initiatives in place.
He said that many of the violations stemmed from ventilation problems caused by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration guidelines that were never tested.
"Human nature makes us jump to conclusions to blame Don Blankenship" for the mine disaster, Taylor said.
The opening arguments followed four days of jury selection. The trial was moved by Judge Irene Berger to Charleston from Beckley after Blankenship's attorneys complained he could not get a fair trial there because of pre-trial publicity.
Blankenship, who led Massey from 2000 to 2010, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of all charges. Four Massey employees have been sentenced in the case.
The death toll at Upper Big Branch was the highest since 91 miners were killed in a 1972 fire at an Idaho silver mine.
Massey Energy was purchased in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Editing by Eric Walsh)