Former coal company execs to go on trial for skirting rules

LOUISVILLE (Ky.) Next week, a group of ex-coal company officials will be tried in Kentucky for allegedly violating federal regulations that were meant to reduce the deadly levels of dust underground mines.
Federal prosecutors stated that the four men worked for Armstrong Coal and ordered Kentucky workers to install dust-monitoring equipment in order to pass air quality testing. Inhaling dusty air from mines can cause an incurable, fatal disease known as pneumoconiosis (or black lung), which has claimed the lives of tens and thousands of coal miners.

A rare case against coal company officials for safety violations is very similar to one brought against a former West Virginia coal executive following a 2010 explosion that claimed 29 lives.

Glendal Buddy Hardison is one of the defendants in Kentucky. He was a former Armstrong official and ran all the western Kentucky mines. Hardison was charged in the Kentucky case one year after the original indictment, which indicted eight Armstrong safety officers and supervisors who worked at Kronos and Parkway mines.

According to the U.S. attorney's office, Hardison met with two Armstrong employees in 2013 and instructed them to ensure that the dust monitoring equipment at the mines was in compliance. Ron Ivy was one of the subordinates and was a safety director at Kronos mine. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2019.

Hardison is also facing conspiracy charges. Each of them are charged with conspiring to defraud America.

Don Blankenship was convicted of misdemeanor conspiracy in 2015. He was sentenced to one year imprisonment for leading Massey Energy during the worst American mining disaster since 1970. 29 miners were killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in South West Virginia on April 5, 2010. Although Blankenship wasn't accused of direct liability for the fatal blast, prosecutors were able prove that he conspired with others to violate mine safety rules.

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The Armstrong case did not involve any deaths or accidents. Prosecutors allege that the former Armstrong officials were involved in moving dust sampling equipment to cleaner areas of the mine to obtain better readings or moving workers without dust monitors to the most dangerous jobs. Prosecutors stated that the incidents took place between 2013 and 2015.

Three of the original nine defendants in the case were able to plead guilty, while two others received pretrial diversion. This means that their charges could be dropped if the men stay out of trouble.

These issues were brought to the forefront when three Armstrong miners who had become fed up with dusty conditions met Tony Oppegard (a Kentucky mine safety lawyer) and were later quoted in a story that attracted federal attention.

Oppegard stated that although prosecutions of mining officials at high levels are rare, dusty conditions and rigging monitoring are very common in underground coal mines.

Oppegard stated that it is rampant in the mining industry. It is not only illegal but also morally wrong to expose miners to a deadly disease that can literally strangle them to death.

Hardison's and Barber's defense attorneys did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The U.S. District Court will begin jury selection on Monday. The trial will last approximately two weeks.