A former Massey Energy Co. executive has been sentenced to 42 months in prison for his role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners.
David C. Hughart, 53, pleaded guilty February 28 to federal charges of conspiracy to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspiracy to violate U.S. laws regulating mine health and safety. As president of Massey subsidiary company White Buck Coal, Hughart is the highest-ranking executive charged thus far in connection with the Upper Big Branch blast, the deadliest mining disaster in more than 40 years.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger handed down Mr. Hughart’s sentence last week, saying it would serve as a strong deterrent to others who might engage in similar conduct and risk the deaths of others while taking into account the defendant’s lack of a criminal history.
Mr. Hughart admitted that repeatedly covered up mine safety violations by alerting miners in advance of MSHA safety inspections. Prosecutors argued in Mr. Hughart’s trial that Massey mine executives routinely ignored MSHA safety rules because following them would have restricted mine output and profits.
According to National Public Radio (NPR), Mr. Hughart implicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the alleged conspiracy to undermine MSHA regulators and mine safety. U.S. prosecutors have not yet formally charged Blankenship with any wrongdoing in connection with the case, but many critics believe his policies and the corporate culture he established led to the Upper Big Branch disaster. Blankenship was an outspoken foe of safety regulations, environmental protections and unions until the blast occurred.
Law 360 observes that “Less than a month before the disaster, the MSHA uncovered more than 50 safety violations at Massey, stating the company had a history of ‘systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts’ to evade regulation.”
Moreover, “Federal investigators found that the company maintained two sets of books designed to mislead inspectors and threatened workers to prevent them from reporting violations,” Law 360 reported.
Beside Mr. Hughart, the only other Massey executives to receive a criminal sentence in connection with the mine blast are Hughie Elbert Stover, Massey’s former security chief, and mine superintendent Gary May.
Mr. Stover was sentenced to three years in prison in February 2012 after being found guilty of lying to FBI and MSHA investigators and ordering the destruction of internal records to impede investigations of the deadly blast.
Mr. May pleaded guilty last year to charges that he concealed ongoing hazards in the mine, such as excessive coal dust and inadequate ventilation.
Other Massey executives are expected to face criminal charges in the case.