Story highlights

Don Blankenship faces four federal charges, including conspiracy and making false statements

He oversaw the West Virginia mine that exploded in 2010, killing 29 workers

Blankenship's attorney says he will fight the charges, and be acquitted

The Upper Big Branch explosion was one of the worst U.S. mine disasters in decades

(CNN) —  

The man who ran the West Virginia mine that exploded in 2010, in what was one of the worst U.S. mine disasters in decades, was indicted Thursday on federal charges.

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, faces four charges: conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and securities fraud.

The counts carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years in prison, according to the Justice Department.

“The indictment alleges that from about January 1, 2008, through about April 9, 2010, Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia, the department said in a statement.

Massey was the fourth-largest coal producer in the United States and the largest mine operator in Appalachia at the time of the Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29 workers.

But it had racked up an extensive list of violations before the disaster, and a 2011 report by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration found that Massey had a history of “systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts” to evade safety regulations.

The company kept two sets of books to mislead miners and inspectors, tipped off crews before surprise inspections and intimidated workers to prevent them from reporting violations, the report found.

Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor, III, said Thursday that his client is innocent of the charges, and will fight them and be acquitted.

“Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety. His outspoken criticism of powerful bureaucrats has earned this indictment. He will not yield to their effort to silence him. He will not be intimidated,” the lawyer said.

Massey was bought by another company, Alpha Natural Resources, after the disaster. In December 2011, it settled with the Justice Department for a record $209 million in fines, penalties and compensation for families of the men killed at Upper Big Branch.

CNN’s Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley contributed to this report.