Coal Company Officials Plead Guilty After Hiding Black Lung Dangers

So far three former officials with Armstrong Coal have acknowledged their part in a fraud made public by HuffPost.

A former supervisor at the Parkway coal mine in Western Kentucky pleaded guilty Tuesday to taking part in a scheme to hide the threat of black lung disease from federal safety officials.

Steve DeMoss, a former safety director and foreman for Armstrong Coal, which owned and operated the Parkway mine, acknowledged in court that he helped submit misleadingly low coal dust readings to mine regulators. Miners can develop black lung disease by breathing too much coal dust in a mine’s atmosphere, leading to a debilitating ailment 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 investigation detailing fraud at the company.

DeMoss faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 for his role in the scheme. A lawyer for DeMoss declined to comment.

Armstrong miners told HuffPost they had been directed to “cheat” on the coal dust readings submitted to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, by stowing their dust monitors in cleaner areas of the mine. Mines showing high levels of coal dust can be shut down by regulators until they come into compliance.

Miners say dust-sampling fraud is widespread in the coal industry, but prosecutions for the crime appear to be relatively rare for its prevalence. When officials announced the first indictment in the case in 2019, U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman said they were trying to “hold accountable those who made calculated business decisions that placed our miners at grave risk.”

Appalachia has seen a resurgence of black lung disease in recent years, a development experts attribute to 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 accepted plea deals in May 2019 and September 2020, respectively. A trial date has not yet been set for the others who have been charged.

Former Armstrong miner Mike "Flip" Wilson, pictured here in 2014, came forward and blew the whistle on the dust-sampling fraud inside the company.
Former Armstrong miner Mike "Flip" Wilson, pictured here in 2014, came forward and blew the whistle on the dust-sampling fraud inside the company.
Dave Jamieson/HuffPost

The case includes an indictment against Glendal “Buddy” Hardison, who managed all the western Kentucky mines for Armstrong Coal and was the highest-ranking official charged. Armstrong went bankrupt and its assets were acquired in 2018 by then-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, just 29 at the time, said he was already experiencing shortness of breath from his time working there.

“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, had already developed black lung disease by then. He also became a whistleblower and outspoken critic of the fraud, telling HuffPost in 2014 that “there’s been cheating ever since I’ve been there.”

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