LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A group of four former coal company officials conspired to cheat federal safety regulations to boost their Kentucky company’s profits instead of protecting their workers, federal prosecutors alleged at the start of a criminal fraud trial Monday.
The four men are accused of ordering workers to skirt dust sampling regulations in two of Armstrong Coal’s underground mines. The regulations are meant to protect workers against dangerous levels of breathable dust in the air, which can lead to a deadly and incurable disease known as black lung.
The trial is a rare prosecution of coal company officials on criminal charges. Federal regulators typically issue fines and shut down mines when they find safety violations, but in this case prosecutors allege that the men broke the law by conspiring to cheat the rules.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Corrine Keel said during opening statements Monday that the men took “dangerous shortcuts” when they ordered workers to rig dust sampling, including moving dust sampling devices to cleaner parts of the mine to get lower readings. The devices are known commonly in the industry as dust pumps.
“Evidence will show the defendants were supposed to be protecting miners, instead they protected these pumps,” Keel said.
Rather than slow production and take measures to clear dust from the mine, “cheating on the sampling was routine,” at the company’s Parkway and Kronos mines, Keel said.
Armstrong went bankrupt in 2017. Prosecutors said the incidents occurred at the two mines between 2013 and 2015.
Attorneys for the former coal company officials argued Monday that they are innocent of the charges. They said none of the men on trial were directly involved in manipulating readings on the pumps.
They are each charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, a felony.
Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, a former general manager over Armstrong’s western Kentucky mines, is the highest-ranking former official of the four.
“There won’t be any evidence that Buddy was involved in dust sampling,” his attorney, Kent Wicker said Monday. He said Hardison is accused of giving “vague directions” to workers that prosecutors are treating as evidence of his guilt.
Charley Barber, a former superintendent at Armstrong’s Parkway mine, is a victim of “government overreach,” his attorney, Marc S. Murphy said. Barber is in his 70s and is awaiting a heart transplant after working 40 years in the coal industry, Murphy said.
“Charley Barber is dying,” Murphy said. “These are the most important days of (his) life. He came here to tell you he’s not guilty.”
In all, nine Armstrong managers and supervisors were indicted, but five settled their cases before the trial. Hardison, Barber, the Parkway mine’s former safety director Brian Keith Casebier and Dwight Fulkerson, a section foreman, are on trial.
The workplace issues came to light when some Armstrong miners contacted a lawyer in 2014. One of the former miners set to testify, Mike Wilson, said the air was so dirty he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face down in the mine.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Louisville is expected to last two weeks.