Environment
9:00 am
Mon December 3, 2012

What Effect Could Upper Big Branch Prosecutions Have on Kentucky Mine Safety?

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia are moving further up Massey Energy’s chain of command in their investigation into a 2010 mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners.

Another Massey Energy executive has been charged in connection with the federal criminal investigation into the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. David Hughart didn’t work at the mine, but last week agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws.

This brings the number of Massey employees charged to four, and prosecutors have indicated the investigation is ongoing.

But the scale of the investigation could have varying effects on Kentucky’s coal industry.

“I think anytime that you have a criminal prosecution involving a mine safety issue, that it does send a message to the industry,” says Lexington mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard. “Because prosecutions are relatively rare.”

Even so, Oppegard says the investigation into Upper Big Branch isn’t typical, and has less of an impact than one may expect for coal companies in eastern Kentucky.

“Kentucky Darby is the norm for mine disasters in Appalachia, where miners are killed and no one ends up being prosecuted,” he said. Five coal miners were killed in the Kentucky Darby mine in 2006. “That’s the norm, rather than the exception.”

Massey Energy had a unique structure—a big corporation with subsidiaries—and most of the coal companies operating in Eastern Kentucky are much smaller. And prosecuting those at the top is difficult, unless you have a president or owner who’s at the mine on a daily basis.

Oppegard says the investigation into Upper Big Branch is so unique, it probably couldn’t be replicated with any coal company other than Massey. Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was known to have micromanaged his subsidiaries—and even testified to that regard in the investigation into the Aracoma Mine Disaster—which Oppegard says could make him an easier target.