September 16, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

A fourth official formerly associated with Massey Energy was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison for conspiring to thwart federal mine safety laws.  David C. Hughart, 54, appeared this week before U.S. District Judge Irene Baker for his sentencing hearing.  Hughart plead guilty in February 2013, following charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin’s staff have been investigating former Massey Energy personnel (the firm was purchased by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011) as part of DOJ’s criminal investigation related to the April 2010 Upper Big  Branch (UBB) disaster.  The coal dust explosion at the West Virginia coal mine killed 29 miners and caused permanent disabling injuries to another worker.

Hughart worked for Massey Energy for more than 20 years, but as Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston (WV) Gazette reminds us:

“Hughart did not work at Upper Big Branch, and his plea involved crimes he has admitted between 2000 and 2010 at Massey Energy’s White Buck operations.”

But in the big scheme of things, the fact that Hughart never worked at UBB doesn’t really matter.  As Ken Ward, Jr. reported in May, Hughart implicated Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship as leader of the conspiracy to deceive mine inspectors.  Blankenship was Massey’s CEO and is the big fish in DOJ’s sight.

Besides Hughart, three other individuals have been prosecuted and have, or are, serving their sentences.  Thomas Harrah, a foreman at UBB falsified his coal mine foreman’s license, a certification required in West Virginia.  He also lied about his fake certificate to investigators, earning him 10 months in jail.

Hughie Stover, 61, a security director—-and sometimes chauffeur for Don Blankenship—-is serving 3 years in prison also for lying to investigators.  Stover also destroyed documents in the wake of the disaster when federal and state mine safety investigators were just beginning their work.

The most senior former Massey Energy official to be convicted to-date is Gary May, 44.  May was a superintendent at UBB and directly involved in its day-to-day operations.  He plead guilty in March 2012 to DOJ’s criminal charges of conspiring to deceive mine inspectors about serious hazards at UBB.  Judge Berger sentenced him to pay at $20,000 penalty and serve 21 months in jail.  U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin noted that May has been cooperating with DOJ’s criminal probe.

The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, of which I was a member, concluded that the UBB disaster:

“was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.”‘

That mythology was the brain child of Massey’s CEO.

The massive coal dust explosion at UBB was not caused by a technical glitch, and it certainly wasn’t an “accident.” The 29 men who died on April 5, 2010 were the victims of a man-made disaster.  I hope DOJ is successful getting the man in the man-made, who was at the top of the corporate ladder.


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