Prosecutors have charged a former high-ranking coal company manager in Kentucky with conspiring to defraud government regulators as they tried to protect miners from black lung disease.
The Labor Department announced the grand jury indictment Wednesday of Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, who managed all the western Kentucky mines for the now-defunct Armstrong Coal Co. Officials made public eight other indictments in the same case last year, though none of those charged were as senior as Hardison.
Prosecutors say Hardison, along with Armstrong mine supervisors, carried out a scheme to submit to the government artificially low readings of coal dust levels inside their mines. Miners who breathe too much coal dust in a mine’s atmosphere can develop black lung disease, a miserable and deadly affliction that leaves them coughing and gasping for air.
The alleged fraud in Armstrong was first made public in a 2014 HuffPost investigation, in which miners from the company’s Parkway Mine said they were instructed by management to cheat on dust sampling.
Miners can assist in coal dust fraud, as it’s known in the industry, by removing their dust sampling pumps and stowing them in a clean area away from dust. When the samples are submitted to the government, the mine’s coal dust levels appear to be in compliance, even if they’re not. (Regulators recently updated coal dust regulations and equipment, partly in hopes of cutting down on fraud.)
Armstrong miners told HuffPost that is exactly how it played out at Parkway. One miner described the dust as so thick on certain days that he could barely see in front of him, yet the mine routinely hit its marks when it came to dust sampling.
Prosecutors called it an effort to “conceal from [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] the ongoing, systemic and pervasive violation of mandatory health and safety standards.” Armstrong, which filed for bankruptcy in 2017, is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. Hardison couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
According to the indictment, Hardison met with one of his co-defendants in 2013 and told him to do whatever he needed to “make the pumps come in” ― that is, come in at an acceptable level.
Russell Coleman, the U.S. attorney for Kentucky’s Western District, said in a statement that it was important to hold high-level managers responsible for such schemes, not just low-level operators.
“The United States will continue to aggressively go up the chain to hold accountable those who made calculated business decisions that placed our miners at grave risk,” Coleman said.
Dust fraud is believed to be widespread in the coal industry, as shown in a 1998 investigation by the Louisville Courier-Journal. Much rarer is a miner speaking up publicly about it, or the government prosecuting managers for it.
In 2014, Parkway miner Justin Greenwell went public with his story, telling HuffPost that sending fraudulent dust readings to MSHA was common practice at the mine. Greenwell then was already suffering from shortness of breath, even though he was just 29 at the time.
“It’s been going on since I started there,” he said of the fraud. “All these guys in management, they know it’s wrong. But they don’t care about our health.”
Another miner, Mike “Flip” Wilson, was already in the first stage of black lung disease when he spoke on the record about dust fraud at the mine. Now retired, he has become a loud critic of such practices, even volunteering as a safety representative at his old mine.
“There’s been cheating ever since I’ve been there,” Wilson said in 2014.