Wednesday 11 September 2013

Executive faces prison over West Virginia's Upper Branch Mine Disaster.

David Hughart, a former executive with Massey Energy has been sentenced to 42 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release for his role in the organized evasion of health and safety regulations at the Massey operated Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed in an explosion in 2010. 

David Hughart, a former Masssey Energy executive sentenced to 42 months in prison for his role in the organized evasion of safety regulations at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. WVNSTV.

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was the worst accident in a US mine for 40 years. It occurred on 5 April 2010 when a methane and coal dust explosion in a mine shaft 300 m bellow the surface killed 29 of 31 miners working in the mine at the time. The last of the bodies were not recovered until four days after the explosion. This caused considerable concern at the time, as the mine's safety chambers were designed only to provide a 96 hour supply of air, though it subsequently emerged that none of the miners had reached these chambers. Levels of toxic gas in the mine were so high that inspectors were unable to begin investigative work at the mine for two months after the explosion.

Plan of the Upper Big Branch Mine showing the location of the explosion and the last four bodies recovered from the mine. USA Today.

An inquiry commissioned by the State of West Virginia found that Massey had systematically avoided implementing safety regulations at the mine, and that the Mine Safety and Health Administration had repeatedly failed to act against the company, presumably due to its economic influence in the region. The report also suggested that the company had tried to take control of the state's political system through large scale spending on election campaigns.

Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011, in a deal which involved the payment of US$10.8 million in civil fines plus US$209 million for a settlement that includes restitution payments, fines for safety citations, a health and safety research and development trust fund and safety improvements at former Massey run projects. Alpha announced in 2012 that it would be closing the Upper Big Branch Mine. A number of former executives at Massey are still serving as executives at Alpha Natural Resources. 

A vigil for the deceased miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010. Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images.

Hughart was not directly involved in the running of the Upper Big Branch Mine, but had been a seniour manager and executive at Massey for over 20 years. In February this year pled guilty to being part of a conspiracy to evade mine inspections at the site, by arranging to give warning on surprise inspections by federal authorities, enabling obvious breaches of safety regulations to be covered up. Te plea was made as part of a bargain in which Hughart implicated other former senior executives at Massey, including former CEO Don Blankenship.

The approximate location of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Google Maps.

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