The President of the United Mine Workers of America says he thinks investigatory work to hold people accountable for the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster will eventually lead to former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.
“This was a culture of avoiding compliance with health and safety, not just at Upper Big Branch, but at other locations,” Cecil Roberts said on Friday’s MetroNews Talkline.
On Thursday, during a plea hearing in U.S. District Court in Beckley, a former Massey Energy executive said he was following instructions from higher ranking company officials when he illegally warned personnel of the arrival of inspectors with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration at the mine sites he oversaw.
When pressed on who specifically had instructed him to take the early warning steps, David Hughart, 53, from Crab Orchard said “the chief executive officer.”
Blankenship was Massey’s CEO at the time Hughart was President of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group in Nicholas County.
It was a statement that caught many people off guard. The case against Hughart, who will be sentenced later this year for routinely putting production ahead of safety, is the latest to come out of the criminal investigation into UBB.
“It’s an indication to me that he, possibly, will be testifying to that,” Roberts said of the court statement from Hughart.
Hughart, the most senior Massey executive to face charges so far, was fired from Massey and did not oversee operations at UBB, but U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says federal prosecutors are following the investigation wherever it leads.
“Mine safety and health laws are not optional,” Goodwin said in a statement issued Thursday. “This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety violations are very serious crimes.”
Roberts say he does not think Hughart was acting alone to skip safety requirements. “The way this works is, piece by piece, witness by witness, putting all this together like a puzzle, and this may very well not be the only person who’s willing to say this,” he said.
He says he thinks the road of responsibility for UBB will keep going up through the ranks of Massey to the person who, he claims, is ultimately responsible.
“In my view, that person is Don Blankenship and I’ve expressed that previously. The one thing that I would say is that what Mr. Hughart said in court is exactly what I believe,” Roberts said.
Blankenship has not been charged with any crimes and an attorney for Blankenship has denied Hughart’s claims.
Hughart faces up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine when he’s sentenced on June 25th.
Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey Energy in 2011, more than a year after the explosion at UBB that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County.