Coal Tattoo

Southern West Virginia U.S. District Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II speaks to reporters Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Brad Davis)

We’ve got this morning’s big breaking news on the Gazette’s website:

Federal prosecutors this morning charged a longtime Massey Energy mine manager with taking part in a decade-long conspiracy to defy safety laws and hide the resulting dangerous conditions from government inspectors.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin alleged that David C. Hughart plotted with other company officials to routinely violate ventilation and dust-control standards at Massey mines.

Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with Goodwin’s team as prosecutors try to work their way up the corporate ladder in their continuing probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

“This is a significant step in the investigation,” Goodwin said in an interview. “We are digging deeper and moving forward.”

The charges against Hughart target alleged crimes that occurred between 2000 and 2010 at Massey’s White Buck operations in Nicholas County, where two mid-level foremen and a Massey operating subsidiary were prosecuted five years ago for criminal safety violations.

But in new court documents, Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby allege a broader conspiracy by as-yet unnamed “directors, officers, and agents” of Massey operating companies to put coal production ahead of worker safety and health at “other coal mines owned by Massey.”

It is the first time in their probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster that prosecutors have filed charges alleging Massey officials engaged in a scheme that went beyond the Raleigh County mine where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion.

You can read the charging document online here, and there’s more coverage from NPR News, West Virginia MetroNews (including an appearance by Goodwin on the Talkline program), the Wall Street Journal, and The Associated Press.

Here’s the press release issued today by Goodwin’s office:

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin today charged a longtime Massey Energy Company executive with two federal crimes: conspiring to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and conspiring to violate mine health and safety laws. David Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard, West Virginia, the former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group, was charged in federal district court in Beckley, West Virginia. Hughart is the highest-ranking official charged to date in an ongoing federal investigation of Massey. He has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with the investigation.

According to Goodwin, Hughart and others at Massey conspired to violate health and safety laws, then conceal those violations by warning mining operations when MSHA inspectors were coming. The alleged criminal conspiracies involved not just Hughart’s Green Valley group but also other Massey mines, and spanned a period from 2000 through March 2010.

“Miners deserve a safe place to earn a living,” said Goodwin. “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. Today’s charges reinforce that urgent message.”

Coal mines in the United States are subject to an array of mandatory federal mine health and safety standards designed to prevent dangers such as explosions, roof collapses, and fires. MSHA conducts frequent, unannounced mine inspections to monitor compliance with those requirements. When MSHA inspectors find violations of health and safety requirements, mine owners are subject to monetary penalties and, in some cases, production shutdowns until violations are corrected.

Today’s charges arise from an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division. Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., which acquired Massey’s operations in a June 2011 merger, is cooperating with the investigation. Counsel to the United States Attorney Steve Ruby and Senior Litigation Counsel Larry Ellis are handling the prosecution.

Note: The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.