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Plea hearing date set on Massey Energy executive

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A top-level official said to be cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office in the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion is set to plea January 16.

David C. Hughart, 53, of Crab Orchard was charged in federal court in Beckley to charges of conspiring to violate mine health and safety laws. According to U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin at the time charges were announced, Hughart is believed to be the highest coal official ever charged in a mine disaster probe.

The order filed today in federal court set Hughart's plea hearing. He is pleading guilty to covering up certain mine ventilation and dust control compliance information. Hughart was said to have worked with others to provide advance notification of safety inspections, allowing the concealment of potential hazards to miner health and safety.

Information filed with the court said Hughart and others committed these violations from 2000 through March 2010.

The charges are similar to findings of the cause leading up to the Upper Big Branch disaster. The explosion in Raleigh County resulted in the death of 29 men and is considered one of the most devastating mine disasters in recent history.

Four different reports stemming from the Upper Big Branch explosion concluded that deaths were largely preventable and tied primarily to Massey's safety culture.

Hughart was not employed at the Upper Big Branch mine. He was a top executive at the White Buck Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy before Alpha Natural Resources took over the company.

Hughart's charges could result in up to six years in prison.

Alpha itself has already agreed to pay a $210 million settlement with the federal government for past violations at UBB. Although the settlement agreement protects Alpha itself from criminal prosecution, former Massey Energy employees may still be held criminally liable for their actions.