The U.S. Attorney for southern West Virginia, Booth Goodwin, said Nov. 28 that a longtime Massey Energy executive is being charged with two federal crimes: conspiring to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspiring to violate mine health and safety laws.
David Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, W.Va., the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group, was charged in federal district court in Beckley, W.Va. Hughart is the highest-ranking official charged to date in an ongoing federal investigation of Massey, Goodwin noted in a statement. Hughart has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with the investigation.
In June 2011, crippled by investigations into a fatal April 2010 blast at its Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia, Massey was taken over by Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR). Alpha has since then settled some legal matters related to the explosion, which killed 29 workers, but other matters, including criminal investigations of some ex-Massey officials, have continued. Those probes have gone beyond Upper Big Branch-specific issues and are looking at allegations of a systemic and deliberate mine safety failure at Massey operations.
According to Goodwin, Hughart and others at Massey conspired to violate health and safety laws, then conceal those violations by warning underground workers at mining operations when MSHA inspectors had arrived at a mine’s surface facilities. The alleged criminal conspiracies involved not just Hughart’s Green Valley group but also other Massey mines, and spanned a period from 2000 through March 2010.
“Miners deserve a safe place to earn a living,” said Goodwin. “Some mine officials, unfortunately, seem to believe health and safety laws are optional. That attitude has no place in the mining industry or any industry. Today’s charges reinforce that urgent message.”
These new charges arise from an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division. Alpha is cooperating with the investigation, Goodwin noted. Counsel to the U.S. Attorney, Steve Ruby, and Senior Litigation Counsel Larry Ellis are handling the prosecution.
The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
Information filing accuses Massey of widespread safety problems
The information filing that Goodwin made at the court in the Hughart case focused on operations of Massey’s White Buck Coal unit in Nicholas County, W.Va.
“Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at the White Buck Mines and at other coal mines owned by Massey, in part because of a belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production,” the filing said. “These violations included violations of the mandatory mine health and safety standards described in paragraph 3. If these routine mine health and safety violations were detected by MSHA, the resulting citations and orders could result in coal production being stopped until the violations were corrected, in addition to civil monetary penalties as well as to criminal penalties including fines or imprisonment. Furthermore, the issuance of citations and orders by MSHA, particularly certain kinds of serious citations and orders, moved the affected mine closer to being classified as a mine with a pattern or potential pattern of violations. That classification would have resulted in increased scrutiny of the affected mine by MSHA, the issuance of additional serious citations and orders, and more frequent mandatory stoppages of coal production as a result of MSHA regulatory actions.”
Hughart was President of Massey’s Green Valley resource group during the period from at least in or around 2000 through in or around March 2010, the information filing said. The Green Valley group was an organizational unit of Massey that controlled the White Buck mines. Hughart also served as a director of White Buck from 2003 through 2010 or later, the filing noted.
A supervisor at Upper Big Branch at the time of the April 2010 explosion has already pleaded guilty in federal court. Gary May, 43, pleaded guilty March 29 before U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to conspiracy to impede MSHA’s enforcement efforts at Upper Big Branch mine between February 2008 and April 5, 2010. May was the mine’s superintendent at the time of the explosion.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a Nov. 28 statement about this matter and how it supports a new mine safety bill he has long been working on: “These new revelations show a complete failure by senior management at Massey to put our miners first and absolutely reinforce the pressing need to pass comprehensive mine safety legislation. Coal mining is an honorable profession; anyone who criminally put profits over people risks lives and tarnishes that honorable work. My bill would specifically hold bad actors fully accountable and increase penalties for these types of flagrant abuses. I’m beyond frustrated that this bill, which I introduced almost three years ago, has not yet passed. The families of these miners as well as current and future miners deserve action. We absolutely cannot wait for another disaster to take place. Today’s news is a big milestone in the Upper Big Branch investigation, and I commend U.S. Attorney Goodwin and his team for working diligently to find those responsible for this tragedy and bring them to justice.”