Massey exec cops a plea in mine explosion that killed 29

U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin announced last week that David C. Hughart, a high-ranking official with over 20 years at Massey Energy Co, will be pleading guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards as part of a plea bargain.

Hughart will also be cooperating with officials in an investigation into a long-standing order to put coal production before their own workers’ safety. It was that policy, the government says, that led to a mine explosion in 2010 in Raleigh County WV, killing 29 miners. Fifty-four workers have been killed in Massey mines in recent years.

Massey officials called the explosion an act of God, blaming natural gas leaks beyond the company’s control.

However, federal mine administrator Davitt McAteer’s investigation determined the cause as  poor ventilation and high amounts of coal dust that had accumulated in the mine. With dangerous levels of dust in the air, the amount of oxygen per square inch is greatly increased which, in turn, greatly reduces the areas flash point. That means there was a lowering of the temperature needed to cause a fire and that a small spark, or even a hot bulb could cause a disastrous ignition.

Prosecutors say that during their investigation they learned that health and safety laws were routinely broken in the Massey coal mines. They also learned from mine foremen who had already been prosecuted that the company expected employees to falsify inspection reports required by the federal government.

Underground workers were also illegally warned in advance of impending government inspections to facilitate conealment of existing safety violations.

Among Massey employees already prosecuted for such violations are Hughie Stover, the company’s security director. Stover was convicted of lying to investigators and destroying evidence regarding the illegal early warnings of pending inspections. Similar charges were filed against Gary May, the mine’s superintendent.

Thomas Harrah, a miner, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted falsifying a foreman’s license when he performed key mine safety inspections.

An audit of Massey records reveals that top brass encouraged Hughart and others to break the law by giving them bribes of up to $150,000. The illegal payouts were concealed by printing work orders for jobs never performed.

Families of the dead miners have long been demanding justice by calling for criminal prosecution of top company executives. If convicted, Hughart faces only a maximum of six years in prison for his role in a disaster that ended the lives of 29 workers.

Photo: In this undated photo provided by the Quarles family, Gary Wayne Quarles, left, Grover Skeens, center, and Joel Price, pose in a mine. The three men were found dead lying near each other deep inside Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010. Provided by Quarles family/AP