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Blankenship to testify in Upper Big Branch probe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been subpoenaed and is expected to testify in about two weeks as part of the ongoing federal-state investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, officials confirmed Monday.

Twenty-nine miners were killed and two others seriously injured in the April 5 explosion at the Raleigh County mine, making it the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 40 years.

The West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training subpoenaed Blankenship, and after talks between agency lawyers and attorneys for Blankenship, it appears the Massey chief plans to answer investigators' questions.

"We believe he will be coming to testify," said C.A. Phillips, acting director of the mine safety office.

Blankenship's interview is scheduled for Dec. 14. Like other interviews in the Upper Big Branch probe, it is set to take place behind closed doors at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, near Beckley.

Spokesmen for Blankenship and Massey did not respond Monday to requests for comment on the subpoena or the scheduled interview with investigators.

At least six Massey officials, including Vice President for Safety Elizabeth Chamberlin, have invoked their Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer questions from the state mine safety office, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the independent team headed by Davitt McAteer.

Those Massey officials objected to MSHA taking part in the interviews, saying the federal agency was using the probe to "divert attention and blame from itself and onto others." Chamberlin alleged that members of McAteer's independent team have "bullied and abused" some witnesses.

MSHA is leading the civil investigation of the explosion, and the disaster is also the subject of another federal criminal probe.

But under federal law, MSHA can subpoena witnesses only if the agency investigates through a public hearing, something the Obama administration has so far refused to do. State law gives West Virginia regulators authority to compel witnesses to appear for questioning about mining accidents regardless of whether interviews are conducted in public or private.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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