A former executive of a Massey Energy subsidiary implicated Donald Blankenship, the former chief executive officer of Massey Energy, in a long-term conspiracy to hide mine safety violations from federal inspectors. Massey Energy owned the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners.
David Hughart, a former president of Green Valley resource group, a Massey subsidiary, pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that he and other Massey officials conspired to thwart inspections by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration by giving mine managers advanced warnings of impending inspections so that they could hide safety violations.
According to the Justice Department’s indictment, Hughart and other Massey officials routinely violated safety laws “in part because of the belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production.”
The Charlestown Gazette reports that after Hughart pleaded guilty, the judge pressed him to name his co-conspirators, and Hughart replied, “the chief executive officer.” Blankenship was CEO of Massey while Hughart was president of Green Valley.
An attorney for Blankenship told the Gazette that Blankenship was not involved in the conspiracy.
Upper Big Branch was owned by another Massey subsidiary at the time of the deadly explosion.
The only thing surprising about Hughart’s story, said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), “Is that a high-level Massey employee finally told the truth.”
Roberts also said that Upper Big Branch wasn’t the only Massey mine where workers died while Blankenship led the mining company. According to Roberts, 53 people have died on Massey’s property during Blankenship’s reign.
“For too long, he ran roughshod over mine safety and health laws, over labor laws, and over people of Central Appalachia,” said Roberts. “Those of us who would stand up to him were often hounded with lawsuits and subjected to threats and intimidation.”
Roberts also said that he hoped that Hughart’s revelation would lead to more indictments and convictions. “Finally there is a witness to Blankenship’s misdeeds who will step forward and tell what he knows,” said Roberts. “Hopefully more will follow suit. If the investigation into the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine is to be complete, Don Blankenship’s indictment – and then conviction – is the only possible outcome.”
Hughart was president of Green Valley between 2000 and 2010 and oversaw operations at the Massey owned White Buck mine in Nicholas County, West Virginia. During that time, Hughart received advance information about impending federal inspections of his mine and relayed this information to mine managers, who then had time to cover up mine safety violations.
The Justice Department’s indictment said that among other things, Hughart and other White Buck officials hid safety violations such as the unsafe accumulation of coal dust. Two reports resulting from investigations of the fatal explosion at Upper Big Branch mine blamed the explosion on an unsafe accumalation of coal dust and blamed management for not taking steps to alleviate this safety hazard.
Hughart’s guilty plea is the fourth conviction of mine safety violations at Massey Energy since the April 2010 explosion at Big Branch, but this is the first time that Blankenship has been directly tied to safety violations by a denfendant.
Hughart has been cooperating with the Justice Department since his indictment last November. His sentencing will take place in June. He faces a possible six-yer prison term and a fine of $350,000.
“The damage Don Blankenship and Massey Energy did to workers, their families and their communities will take years to overcome,” said Roberts. “I commend US Attorney Booth Goodwin for taking this investigation where no one else has, and look forward to the day when Don Blankenship is behind bars where he belongs.”