Federal prosecutors have signaled a bold new move up the corporate ladder in their investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners in 2010. A former executive of Massey Energy, which ran the mine but has since been acquired by another company, has been accused of criminal conspiracy in hiding lethal safety violations at Massey mines and tipping off mine supervisors to spot inspections.
According to prosecutors, the Massey executive, David Hughart, has agreed to plead guilty and provide information in a continuing investigation of Massey “directors, officers and agents.”
The initiative, by R. Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. attorney, is a departure from typical mine investigations focused on lower-ranking supervisors that spare executive officers responsible for ignoring safety violations in pursuit of productivity. The explosion at Upper Big Branch was a classic example of management’s foiling safety inspectors and hiding daily risks to miners’ lives. It was ultimately traced to a deadly combination of coal dust and methane buildups that the company never should have tolerated under federal safety rules.
Prosecutors decided to base their case against Hughart on conspiracy charges rather than on violations of specific health and safety regulations because that way they could go after the broader corporate culture. Although Hughart was not an executive at Upper Big Branch at the time of the disaster, he had served as an officer or director at two dozen Massey subsidiaries that were repeatedly cited for violations during the 20 years he worked closely with Don Blankenship, the combative — and now retired — Massey chief executive.
Prosecutors say Hughart was a principal in a 10-year-long conspiracy against miners’ safety — a policy laid bare by the tragedy at Upper Big Branch.
Although Blankenship has denied responsibility for what was the worst mine disaster in four decades, prosecutors are wise to pursue the path of corporate responsibility.
— The New York Times