Investigators have said those standards were repeatedly ignored at Upper Big Branch, setting the stage there for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge, coal dust-fueled explosion.
And MSHA investigators have cited a Massey practice of providing "advance notice" of government inspections as a key factor in the mine disaster. MSHA investigators said this practice allowed Massey to fix hazards prior to inspections, but avoid more long-term safety improvements or tougher enforcement actions that might have prompted the mine to be closed.
During Thursday's plea hearing, Berger was running through a routine list of questions intended to assure that Hughart understood the charges against him and that he really committed the crimes he was admitting.
The judge pushed Hughart, asking him to explain exactly what "higher ups" he had worked with to provide advance notice of MSHA inspections. Hughart responded, "the chief executive officer." He did not mention Blankenship by name, and did not name any other Massey officials.
The hearing moved on, until Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby interrupted to tell the judge he believed Hughart may have misunderstood one of her questions. Ruby asked that the parties discuss that question with the judge in a private meeting at the bench, saying that the issue involved the government's ongoing criminal investigation. The judge agreed, and turned on a courtroom "white noise" system so spectators and the media could not hear the discussion. Later, both Ruby and Hughart's defense lawyer, Michael Whitt, refused to comment on what was discussed.
After the hearing, in an impromptu news conference just outside the courthouse, Hughart's wife and son both said Hughart was a good man who was just doing what Blankenship had ordered him to do.
"Don Blankenship is the reason we're here today," said Hughart's wife, Karen. "My husband was told he would be blackballed from the coal industry if he didn't go along."
So far, three individuals have been sentenced to jail in the government's criminal probe of the Upper Big Branch disaster and Massey Energy's safety practices.
A former Upper Big Branch miner, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.
Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
And in January, the judge sentenced former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May to 21 months in jail and a $20,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to plotting to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin also reached a deal not to prosecute Alpha Natural Resources for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities it inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011. That deal required the firm to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Following previous developments in the case, Goodwin has said his investigation is continuing, and indicated that his team is following leads in an effort to move up the corporate ladder at Massey.
On Thursday, Goodwin's office issued a press release that didn't mention Hughart's statement about Blankenship, but touted the conviction of Hughart.
"Mine safety and health laws are not optional," Goodwin said in the release. "This prosecution reiterates the message that mine safety violations are very serious crimes."Asked to comment specifically on Hughart's statement, Goodwin said, "Because it is an ongoing investigation, I'm not going to comment on the direction of the investigation."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.