The VICE Channels

    This Coal Exec is Pleading Guilty to Conspiracy After a Mine Blew Up 29 People

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    The year 2010 was a brutal year for fossil fuel industry workers. The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 rig workers, and an accident at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch claimed the lives of 29 coal miners. The fallout to the disaster, caused by an explosion in the mine, revealed that Massey had systematically ignored a slew of safety violations previously cited by the government, and challenged a number of them in court in an effort to delay compliance. The Upper Big Branch mine alone had received 50 violation citations in 2010 alone.

    So, both West Virginia and the federal government opened investigations into the company in the wake of the disaster, and it was quickly revealed that CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship is pretty much a caricature of the soulless corporate robber baron. Grist’s David Roberts has called him, alternatively, a “really bad dude” and an “evil bastard.”

    Last year, Massey subsidiary Alpha Resources (which operated the mine) agreed to pay $209 million in fines and safety upgrades.

    And now the biggest head yet is going to roll. The exec running the company at the time of the catastrophe, an ex-president of Massey, has been charged with two counts of conspiracy—one felony, one misdemeanor—for attempting to defraud the federal government.

    And West Virginia’s Metro News reports that the man, David C. Hughart, is going to plead guilty to both: “U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says Hughart will plead guilty to a felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy. He faces up to six years in prison.”

    This is the biggest hit yet to the onerous company, and speculation is mounting that prosecutors are setting their sights even higher. There’s ample evidence that Blankenship, who stepped down last year, had full knowledge of all of the safety violations at his coal mines, and failed to comply with them. To save cash.

    The AP reports that

    Hughart could be the link prosecutors need to go up the Massey food chain. He’s been president of at least 10 Massey subsidiaries throughout his career, positions that would have required the consent of a CEO whose micromanagement is well documented. At Big Branch, for example, Blankenship demanded production reports every 30 minutes.

    Investigators say that at other Massey mines, Hughart colluded with others to violate laws requiring adequate ventilation, the removal of explosive coal dust and the application of pulverized limestone to prevent explosions.

    Essentially, Hughart was conspiring to ensure that he and other execs didn’t have to enact the necessary measures to keep their workers safe, and was colluding with them to cover up the fact their mines were ticking time bombs. All to increase coal production to meet the explicit demands of Mr. Blankenship.

    The entire debacle is instructive, too, in that it reveals the ugly underbelly of the resource extraction industry. That there are miners, rig workers, and drilling operators who are essentially working at the whims of execs who perpetually and willfully disregard their safety to enhance profit margins. Watch that video above again to get a sense of these execs’ attitudes towards “productivity” and “survival of the fittest.” It’s chilling stuff, and yet another reason fossil fuels should be ushered on out—but right now, it’s how the game is played.

    Editor's note: This story was originally accompanied by a photograph of David C. Hughart, but not the correct Hughart. We apologize.