Upper Big Branch Mine MSHA

Massey Executive Pleads Guilty to Federal Crimes, Implicates Don Blankenship

While pleading guilty to his role in violating health and safety laws prior to the fatal 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, former Massey Energy executive David Hughart admitted in court that he had conspired with the company’s CEO.

MSHA

In the process of pleading guilty to two federal crimes related to the ongoing federal investigation of Massey Energy following the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, former Massey Energy executive David Hughart implicated former CEO Don Blankenship in providing advance warning when MSHA inspectors were arriving.

A methane explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010, killing 29 miners. Subsequent investigations have uncovered safety and leadership failings at Massey Energy prior to the incident. In federal district court in Beckley, W.Va., on Feb. 28, David Hughart, former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group, admitted that he and others at Massey conspired to violate health and safety laws and concealed those violations by warning mining operations when MSHA inspectors were arriving to conduct mine inspections. 

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charlestown Gazette reported that during questioning, Hughart implicated former CEO Don Blankenship: “The judge pushed Hughart, asking him to explain exactly what ‘higher ups’ he had worked with to provide advance notice of MSHA inspections. Hughart responded, ‘the chief executive officer.’ He did not mention Blankenship by name, and did not name any other Massey officials.”

In a statement sent to EHS Today, Blankenship’s attorney, William W. Taylor III, said, in part, “Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, Don took every step to make the mines under his responsibility safer.”

“We are not concerned about Mr. Hughart’s recollections. People often remember untrue things when they are attempting to reduce a possible prison sentence,” Taylor added.

Blankenship Under Fire

Since the 2010 catastrophe, however, Blankenship has been under fire for his role in the company’s poor safety culture and performance. Hughart’s statement in court reignites the discussion surrounding potential implications for Blankenship in this federal investigation.

“Finally there is a witness to Blankenship’s misdeeds who will step forward and tell what he knows,” said Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America International. “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 is believed to be the highest-ranking mine official ever convicted of conspiracy to impede MSHA or conspiracy to violate mine health and safety standards. He faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he is sentenced on June 25, 2013 by United States District Judge Irene C. Berger. 

The investigation was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division. Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., which acquired Massey’s operations in a June 2011 merger, is continuing to cooperate with the investigation.

“Mine safety and health laws are not optional," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in a Feb. 28 statement. “This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety violations are very serious crimes.” 

When EHS Today reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia to ask whether Blankenship is a target of the federal investigation, a spokesman responded via email with the statement Goodwin made following Hughart’s court appearance: “Because this is an ongoing investigation, I'm not going to comment on the direction of the investigation.”

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