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Former Massey Official Implicates Blankenship in Scheme to Skirt Mine Safety Laws

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The former president of a Massey Energy subsidiary, who also served for 20 years in top positions throughout Massey, implicated former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship in a long-term scheme to hide mine safety violations from federal inspectors.  

David Hughart, former president of White Buck Coal Co., pleaded guilty in federal court in Beckley, W.Va., yesterday to conspiring with other company officials from 2000 to 2010 to warn of inspections that could let miners and managers conceal potentially deadly conditions that could lead to a shutdown in production.

According to The Associated Press:

When asked by Judge Irene Berger if such warnings were company policy and, if so, who ordered it, Hughart said "the chief executive officer." Though he was not mentioned by name in court, Don Blankenship was Massey CEO at the time. And outside the courtroom, Karen Hughart confirmed that's who her husband meant.

She told reporters:

Don called the office and at home. Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear…Don Blankenship is the reason we're here today. My husband was told he would be blackballed from the coal industry if he didn't go along.

While Hughart did not work at the Upper Big Branch, where an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010, Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reports that:

In court documents in Hughart's case, prosecutors alleged a broader conspiracy by unnamed "directors, officers, and agents" of Massey operating companies to put coal production ahead of worker safety and health at "other coal mines owned by Massey."

The safety standard violations at White Buck Coal included improper mine ventilation and control of highly explosive coal dust. Those same standards, say Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials were routinely violated at Upper Big Branch and were the cause that allowed a small methane ignition to turn into a massive, coal dust explosion that ripped through the mine.

As the AP reports:

Multiple investigations found the Upper Big Branch blast was caused by blatant disregard of federal safety laws, and Blankenship had a well-documented record of micromanaging his mines.

Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts says, “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.”

For far too long, he ran roughshod over mine safety and health laws, over labor laws, and over the people of central Appalachia.  

Hughart faces up to six years in prison when he is sentenced in June.

Former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover was convicted in October 2011 of obstructing justice and lying to FBI and MSHA agents investigating the mine explosion. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison. Also former Upper Big Branch mines superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison in January, pleading guilty to evading federal mine safety and laws and covering up safety violations.

While mine management regularly short-circuited safety regulations and put production before miner safety, MSHA’s enforcement effort and practices at Upper Big Branch also had a number of significant failures, according to MSHA’s own report released last year.

Read more from the AP and from the Charleston Gazette. Also read Roberts’ full statement.

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