In a rare move, four officials from now-defunct Armstrong Coal are defendants in a criminal trial facing conspiracy charges to defraud the United States. Federal prosecutors have charged the former executives – Glendall Hardison, Charley Barber, Brian Keith Casebier, and Dwight Fulkerson – with violating federal regulations enacted to reduce dust in underground coal mines.
Actions that put coal miners at risk
According to prosecutors, the quartet tried to enact shortcuts. Specifically, they demanded that coal miners enter two Kentucky-based mines – Kronos and Parkway – and rig equipment used to monitor dust to help them pass quality tests.
Specific allegations involve moving dust sampling equipment – known in the industry as dust pumps – to cleaner areas of the mine to improve readings from 2013 to 2015. They also moved workers to areas without dust monitors to the dirtiest, more risky jobs.
That order created an unsafe environment where coal miners inhaled dust in supposedly “safe” coal mine areas. Inhalation can result in pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung, a disease that lacks a cure and has killed tens of thousands of workers, with others suffering adverse effects. The case caught the attention of prosecutors after a news story about the miners and their meeting with a mine safety lawyer after their complaints fell on deaf ears.
A total of nine Armstrong managers and supervisors faced indictments. However, five settled prior to the trial.
For miners stricken with black lung following a long career, any verdict will not improve their health or lengthen their lives. However, it could represent a sliver of justice for them and a safer future for coal miners going forward.