Armstrong Coal officials indicted on falsifying, tampering with air quality tests

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer/awarren@messenger-inquirer.com United States Attorney Russell Coleman holds up a dust testing device during a press conference on Wednesday at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History in the coal mine gallery. Coleman announced that eight former supervisory and safety officials at now defunct Armstrong Coal Co. were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for conspiracy to hide cancerous dust levels at mines in Ohio and Muhlenberg County.

Eight former officials with Armstrong Coal Co. were indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury, on charges of falsifying air quality tests in two mines in Muhlenberg and Ohio counties, increasing the danger the miners would be exposed to dust known to cause diseases like "black lung" disease.

Russell Coleman, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, announced the eight indictments Wednesday afternoon at a press conference at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History.

Coleman said the men conspired with Armstrong Coal and used "deceit, trickery and dishonest means" to circumvent federal regulations regarding miners' exposure to dust at the Kronos mine in Ohio County and the Parkway Mine in Muhlenberg County.

The goal of the eight officials, Coleman said was to "preclude them from protecting those miners."

Armstrong Coal, which went bankrupt last year, is listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment.

The federal grand jury in Bowling Green indicted Charles Barber, 63, of Madisonville, a former Parkway superintendent; Brian Keith Casebier, 60, of Earlington, a former Parkway safety director; Steven Demoss, 48, of Nortonville, former assistant safety director at Parkway; Billie Hearld, 41, of Russellville, a former Parkway section chief; Ron Ivy, 49, of Manitou, former Kronos Mine safety director; John Ellis Scott, 61, of South Carrollton, who worked in the safety department at Parkway; Dwight Fulkerson, 40, of Drakesboro, a former Parkway section chief, and Jeremy Hackney, 45, of White Plains, a former section chief at Parkway.

Parkway Mine is closed, and Kronos Mine is operated now by Murray Energy.

The lengthy indictment says all eight men "conspired to commit dust fraud by knowingly and willfully altering the company's required dust-sampling procedures, by circumventing the dust-sampling regulations, submitting false samples and by making false statements on dust certification cards." By doing so, the men attempted to bypass the requirements of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act.

All eight were federally certified to conduct dust tests and were knowledgeable of the regulations regarding monitoring and reporting. The incidents occurred between Jan. 1, 2013, and Aug. 8, 2015.

Ivy is the only person indicted who worked at Kronos Mine, while the others worked at Parkway Mine. The indictment charges all eight with moving miners around the mines so their dust monitors weren't taking samples from the same site during their shifts, as required. As part of that, dust-testing gear was sometimes ordered placed in clean air, the indictment says.

Other charges involving some, but not all of the men, include certifying test results officials knew were false, submitting dust cassettes for testing when the tests had been conducted when the mine was not running, and removing dust sampling devices before the end of a miner's shift, or when it was known there were sections of excessive dust in Parkway Mine.

"These folks were very, very good at cheating" the regulations, Coleman said.

The investigation began when whistleblowers at the mines took information to prosecutors, Coleman said. The investigation involved "multiple interviews" with witnesses and reviews of the mines' test documents and testing devices, Coleman said.

"There were oftentimes results that didn't make sense," Coleman said. The investigation involved following "a lengthy paper trail," he said.

Michael Wilson, a former miner at Parkway who contracted black lung disease, was one of the men who brought information to federal officials.

Of Wilson, Coleman said, "I'm grateful for him, and for his courage." Wilson said he reported the issues at Parkway because he didn't want younger miners to be exposed to unsafe conditions.

"We knew they were doing it," Wilson said of the officials indicted by the grand jury. When a reporter asked Wilson if he felt mine officials weren't looking out for workers' safety, Wilson said, "they don't care. All they want is the coal ... All they want is the profits."

Coleman said the indictment is "a step in the process" and said it is possible additional charges will be filed in the future. Coleman said the message to the miner in the indictment is, "you matter," and he urged other miners to report violations of safety regulations.

To mine operators, the message is "run a clean mine," Coleman said. Coleman said that mine operators should "factor into your cost-benefit analysis that you'll continue to see robust prosecution.

"It's unusual for one of these to move to prosecution," Coleman said, and said there had been just one similar mining case prosecuted in the last 20 years. "It (speaks) to the gravity of the indictment. It was one of those (cases) that just made me angry."

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