A former president of Massey Energy subsidiary Green Valley Resource Group pled guilty on Thursday to safety violations connected to the 2010 coal mine explosion that left 29 dead at the Upper Big Branch mine. David Hughart also told the judge that the CEO of Massey was directly involved in a policy of impeding Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspections.
Judge Irene Berger asked Hughart which company officials ordered him to give advance warnings of MSHA inspections, which are supposed to be unannounced.
“The chief executive officer,” he replied.
Don Blankenship was the CEO of Massey at the time, and Hughart’s wife Karen confirmed that her husband was indeed referring to Blankenship. “Don called the office and at home,” she said. “Anyone that did not comply was threatened. We lived under fear.”
“I allowed… it to happen,” David Hughart told the court. “I was responsible for the operation.”
Investigations into the explosion concluded that Massey hid problems at the mine using doctored safety-inspection books and an advance-warning system.
Hughart—the highest ranking official charged as a result of the investigation of the disaster—faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine. He will be sentenced June 25.
Blakenship’s attorney, William Taylor, denied that the coal baron prevented proper inspections.
“Don Blankenship did not conspire with anybody to do anything illegal or improper. To the contrary, Don took every possible step to make the mines under his responsibility safer,” he said in an email.
After a 2006 fire, attorneys found a memo, reportedly from Blankenship, that told workers to disregard their bosses’ instructions to build safety precautions: “Ignore them and run coal,” the memo said.
Blankenship has donated millions to conservative politicians. In 2006 alone, he spent $1.8 million to elect 41 Republican candidates. He retired from Massey in 2010.
Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. acquired Massey’s operations in a June 2011 merger and is cooperating with the investigation. The company has paid $210 million to settle violations at the now-sealed Upper Big Branch mine and other Massey mines.
“Don Blankenship is a very powerful person,” David Hughart’s son Jonathan said Thursday, outside the courtroom. “He won’t see a day in prison. I promise you that.”
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File