Massey Executive Pleads Guilty to Conspiracy Related to Upper Big Branch Disaster
In an unprecedented move, a Massey division president faced charges of conspiracy related to the 2010 mining explosion that killed 29 workers.
A Massey division president pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy charges in the Upper Big Branch Disaster of 2010. David Hughart, 53, was charged in West Virginia with conspiring to violate mine health and safety laws.
According to U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin II, this may be the highest executive to be charged in a mine disaster probe to date. Hughart has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators as they continue with the investigation into Massey and the April 2010 disaster.
The explosion killed 29 miners. According to investigators, employees were encouraged to conceal violations by their superiors. This conspiracy allowed the company to hide safety risks by tipping workers off to impending MSHA inspections.
DOL's fatal accident report on the disaster said safety violations by the mine's owner caused the methane explosion, and illegal policies and practices implemented by it were the root cause. The investigation "revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators," the report stated, adding that Performance Coal Company/Massey Energy used staff to relay advance notice of health and safety inspections to mine personnel when federal and state inspectors arrived at the mine and also kept two sets of books about safety and health hazards there, with some hazards noted in the second set –- unavailable to mine employees or inspectors -– that were not recorded as required in the first set, which was open to review. PCC's chief of security was convicted in federal court of lying to MSHA about whether advance notice was a practice at the mine.
Hughart could receive up to six years in prison for the role that he played in this conspiracy, and though he no longer is employed by Massey (which was purchased by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011), Goodwin said Hughart is currently employed by another mining company.
The disaster, which four different reports deemed preventable, led to the largest MSHA fine in the agency’s history, amounting to $10,825,368. MSHA issued 369 citations and orders. In addition to the amount due in fines, Alpha Natural Resources paid $205 million in restitution to victims and families of victims, and funded safety improvements in December of last year.
The disaster began as a methane ignition, which led to the massive coal dust explosion.