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Former Coal Mine Executive Sentenced to One Year in Prison After Explosion Killed 29

Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was sentenced Wednesday to one year in federal prison for safety lapses connected to a deadly West Virginia coal mine explosion.

A jury in federal court convicted Blankenship in December of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards, connected to an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 men. One year in prison was the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor charge.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger also imposed the maximum fine, $250,000.

In a brief statement during the sentencing hearing, Blankenship said, "It is important to everyone that you know that I'm not guilty of a crime." He told families of the miners that they were "great guys, great coal miners."

Related: Coal Loses Its Grip in West Virginia

Outside the courthouse, a few family members of miners who were killed yelled at Blankenship, according to the Associated Press.

"We buried our kid because of you. I got to go to the grave to see my kid's casket," Robert Atkins said.

"This sentence is a victory for workers and workplace safety," said Carl Castro, the acting U.S. Attorney in Charleston.

"Putting the former chief executive officer of a major corporation in prison sends a message that violating mine safety laws is a serious crime and those who break those laws will be held accountable."

Image: Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship and his attorney Bill Taylor are met by media outside the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston West Virginia
Former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship, front left, and his attorney Bill Taylor are met by members of the media outside the courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia, on Dec. 3. 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. CHRIS TILLEY / Reuters

Blankenship's lawyers have vowed to appeal his conviction. Blankenship has claimed that the explosion was caused by a buildup of natural gas in the mine. But federal investigators found that faulty equipment created a spark that ignited a mixture of coal dust and methane gas in the poorly ventilated mine.

Related: Massey's Mine Safety Record Under Scrutiny

The investigators found that broken and clogged water sprinklers failed to put out the resulting fire.

His lawyers had asked the judge to be lenient.

"The defense never contested that Don Blankenship could be blunt and a hard taskmaster, but the truth is that he cares deeply about his family, his community, and the people who worked for him," they said in court filings before the sentencing.

"Not one witness testified that Mr. Blankenship instructed him to violate safety regulations or otherwise suggested or insinuated that he should violate any of the regulations."

But prosecutors said he was well aware of the risks he was taking by ignoring mine safety laws, especially those requiring adequate ventilation.

"He made a conscious, cold-blooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him," prosecutors said in their pre-sentence filings.