West Virginia trial starts for mine executive in deadly 2010 blast
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massie Energy, talks with reporters near the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, April 6, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Munden

A former coal company executive goes on trial in a West Virginia court on Thursday on federal charges stemming from a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 people.

Don Blankenship, the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co, faces three felony counts for allegedly ignoring hundreds of safety breaches at the Upper Big Branch Mine and conspiring to cover up violations. The blast was the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

More than 100 people have been called for jury selection in Charleston's U.S. District Court. Judge Irene Berger moved the trial from Beckley after Blankenship's lawyers complained he could not get a fair trial there because of intense pre-trial publicity.

Blankenship, who led Massey from 2000 to 2010, pleaded not

guilty in 2014 and is free on a $5 million cash bond. His lawyers had repeatedly sought a delay in the trial.

Blankenship faces a maximum 31 years in prison if convicted

on all charges. Massey Energy was purchased in 2011 by Alpha

Natural Resources Inc for about $7 billion.

Blankenship is accused of conspiring to falsify dust samples and violating federal securities laws by lying about Massey's safety practices.

A federal appeals court in March lifted a sweeping gag order from Berger that had sealed filings and barred participants from talking about the case.

The death toll at Upper Big Branch, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Charleston, was the highest since 91 miners were killed in a 1972 fire at an Idaho silver mine.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Eric Beech)