A former supervisor at the Parkway Coal Mine in western Kentucky pleaded guilty on Tuesday to participating in a scheme to hide the threat of black lung disease from federal safety officials.
Steve DeMoss, a former safety manager and foreman of Armstrong Coal, which owned and operated the Parkway mine, admitted in court that he helped submit misleading coal dust readings to mining regulators. Miners can develop black lung disease from breathing too much coal dust into the atmosphere of a mine, resulting in a debilitating illness that sufferers compare to the sensation of drowning.
The charge against DeMoss is part of a case that federal prosecutors have brought against nine former Armstrong officials following a 2014 HuffPost Survey detailing the fraud in the business.
DeMoss faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $ 100,000 for his role in the scheme. An attorney for DeMoss declined to comment.
Armstrong miners told HuffPost they were asked to “cheat” on coal dust readings submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, by storing their dust monitors in cleaner areas of the mine. Mines with high levels of coal dust can be shut down by regulators until they are compliant.
Miners say dust sampling fraud is widespread in the coal industry, but prosecutions for the crime appear to be relatively rare given its prevalence. When officials announced the first indictment in the case in 2019, US Attorney Russell Coleman said they were trying to “hold accountable those who make calculated business decisions that put our minors at risk.”
Appalachians saw a recurrence of black lung disease in recent years, development experts attribute poor regulation and prevention efforts, including dust sampling fraud.
DeMoss is the third Armstrong official to plead guilty in the case so far. Former mine foremen Ron Ivy and Billy Hearld agreed to the plea agreements in May 2019 and September 2020, respectively. A trial date has not yet been set for the other defendants.
The case includes an indictment vs. Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, who managed all the mines in western Kentucky for Armstrong Coal and was the top official charged. Armstrong went bankrupt and its assets were acquired in 2018 by Murray Energy, now known as American Consolidated Natural Resources.
In 2014, Armstrong miner and whistleblower Justin Greenwell told HuffPost that sending fraudulent dust readings to MSHA was common practice at the company’s Parkway mine. Greenwell, who was only 29 at the time, said he was already experiencing shortness of breath from his work time.
“It’s been going on since I started there,” he said of the fraud. “All these management guys, they know that’s wrong. But they don’t care about our health.
Another miner, Mike “Flip” Wilson, had already developed black lung disease by this time. He has also become a whistleblower and open critic of fraud, telling HuffPost in 2014 that “there has been cheating since I’ve been at it.”
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