Environment

Eight former employees of two western Kentucky coal mines entered not guilty pleas at an arraignment hearing Wednesday. Those defendants are being federally charged with cheating on safety monitoring which is meant to reduce the risk of black lung disease.

Miners who work in the dustiest areas routinely wear monitoring devices. The indictment alleges those workers would be replaced mid-shift with miners who were not wearing the devices. Officials at Armstrong Coal Company are also accused of fabricating tests and submitting results from days when the mine wasn’t operating.

Controlling coal dust helps limit miners’ risk of lung disease. The indictment comes at a time when the region is experiencing a surge in cases of black lung.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, carried out several “impact” inspections at Armstrong Energy coal mines in Kentucky between 2014 and 2017. The special inspection program started under the Obama administration and focused on mines that MSHA said “merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns.”

MSHA records show the two Armstrong mines were cited for ventilation system problems and had a rate of violations higher than the national average for similar mines.

Those charged include a superintendent, safety director and section foreman at Armstrong’s Parkway Mine and a safety director at the company’s Kronos mine. Armstrong Coal Company is referred to as “an unindicted co-conspirator.” No high level executives have been charged, but the U.S. Attorney isn’t ruling out the possibility of future indictments.

The trial date has been set for October 3rd in Chief District Judge Joseph McKinley’s court in Owensboro. The judge assigned each of the eight defendants an unsecured bond of $25,000 and instructed them to avoid contact with any co-defendants or witnesses.