Massey Energy workers take a break from drilling in Montcoal, W.Va., in… (Jeff Gentner / EPA )
WASHINGTON — The former president of a Massey coal mine in West Virginia was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mining safety laws Wednesday, and federal authorities said he was expected to plead guilty in a widening criminal investigation that began after a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.
David C. Hughart, former president of Massey's Green Valley Resource Group, was charged in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va., with a felony on allegations of tipping off mine officials in advance of federal safety inspections. He was also charged with a misdemeanor on allegations of conspiring with other "directors, officers and agents" of the company's coal mining operations to ignore federal safety regulations in order to increase coal production.
Though Hughart was not charged in the explosion, and actually left the company just weeks before the disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the charges and his apparent willingness to cooperate with federal law enforcement agents make him the most senior Massey official to be prosecuted since the explosion, and signals that prosecutors are turning their attention to even higher targets within the company.
"Miners deserve a safe place to earn a living," said R. Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney in Charleston, W.Va. "Some mine officials, unfortunately, seem to believe health and safety laws are optional. That attitude has no place in the mining industry or any industry."
He added: "Today's charges reinforce that urgent message."
Hughart could not be located for comment, and his attorney, Timothy C. Carrico of Charleston, did not return phone calls.
The charges center on Hughart's supervision of the White Buck Coal Co. mine near Leivasy, W.Va., which was owned and operated by Massey.
According to federal mining health and safety laws, the mine was supposed to be equipped with an approved ventilation control device, coal dust was to have been cleaned up and rock dust should have been spread inside to help prevent explosions.
But according to the charges against Hughart, those laws "were routinely violated at the White Buck Mines and at other coal mines owned by Massey, in part because of a belief that consistently following those laws would decrease coal production."
Three lower-level mining officials have been convicted in the investigation triggered by the blast.