BECKLEY, W.Va. (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge in West Virginia on Wednesday effectively delayed the Jan. 26 start of the trial of a former coal mining company chief executive on charges of violating mine safety laws before a 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger extended the deadline on filing motions ahead of the trial of Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Co, who faces charges stemming from the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades.
The judge said she would file a written order with a new deadline for pre-trial motions. Prosecutors declined to comment.
Blankenship, who headed Massey from 2000 to 2010, has pleaded not guilty to violating federal safety laws at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine, about 40 miles (64 km) south of Charleston, West Virginia's state capital. If convicted, he could face a total of 31 years in prison.
Blankenship is accused of conspiring to tip off workers about inspections so they could cover up violations. The indictment also said that after the explosion, he misled the Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey's safety practices.
The judge made no ruling on Wednesday on a motion filed by media companies to lift a gag order that prevents families of the miners who were killed in the explosion from speaking to journalists. She said she would rule on the gag order soon.
Blair Brown, an attorney representing Blankenship, said the defense intends to file a motion to move the trial to another location. “Due to the publicity and emotion connected to the case, the goal of finding a fair and impartial jury is not possible,” Brown told the court.
Massey was bought in 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion. Alpha Natural was not accused of wrongdoing.
In December 2011, Alpha Natural agreed to pay $209 million to settle criminal and civil charges over the explosion, including $1.5 million to each of the families of the miners who died.
Gary May, a former mine superintendent, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge. He was sentenced in January 2013 to 21 months in prison.
Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Eric Walsh