New charges against four foremen end criminal probe of Aracoma fire
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four Massey Energy foremen were charged Thursday with criminal mine safety violations in a move that federal prosecutors said ends their four-year probe of the fire that killed two workers at the company's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
Those charged were Donald R. Hagy Jr., 47, of Gilbert; Terry L. Shadd, 37, of Chapmanville; Edward R. Ellis Jr., 38, of Justice; and Michael A. Plumley, 38, of Delbarton.
All four were charged as corporate agents of Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary with failing to conduct required mine evacuation drills at the Aracoma Mine in 2005 and 2006, prior to the fatal January 2006 blaze.
Each was charged with one misdemeanor count through a document called an "information," typically an indication that the defendants are expected to plead guilty and have cooperated with prosecutors.
If convicted, each of the foremen faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, prosecutors said.
In a news release, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the filing of these charges "concludes the investigation" of the Aracoma fire that killed miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.
The charges come as prosecutors continue a criminal investigation of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, and on the same day another Massey miner died at White Buck Coal Co. -- a Massey subsidiary that pleaded guilty to a mine safety crime in 2007.
In an unrelated action, federal prosecutors also announced that they had filed felony charges against two surface mine truck drivers for allegedly falsifying training records at the Legacy Resources LLC Synergy Surface Mine No. 1 in Boone County.
John R. Wright, 65, of Whitman, and Jeffrey Potter, 44, of Crum, face maximum sentences of five years in prison and $250,000 fines if they are convicted.
"Coal is vital to this state's economy," Goodwin said in a prepared statement.
"These jobs support and put food on the tables of many hard working West Virginians," Goodwin said. "Workers shouldn't be forced to earn their living in illegal, unsafe conditions. We will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to hold accountable those who willfully violate safety standards in the workplace."
Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary had already pleaded guilty in 2009 to 10 mine safety crimes, agreeing to pay a $2.5 million criminal fine as well as $1.7 million in civil penalties to resolve citations issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration following the fire. Also, the Aracoma probe resulted in another foreman, David R. Runyon, pleading guilty to not conducting required evacuation drills and paying a $1,000 fine.
But a lawyer for the Bragg and Hatfield families issued a strongly worded statement Thursday afternoon that repeated the families' previous criticism of the government's decision not to try to prosecute anyone further up the Massey corporate ladder.
"U.S. Attorney Goodwin must tell Congress now -- while it's listening and before we have even more widows of dead miners -- why the current law is insufficient to pursue all persons responsible for widows of dead miners -- why the current law is insufficient to pursue all persons responsible for such blatantly criminal and deadly conditions," said Bruce Stanley, the families' attorney.
During the Jan. 19, 2006, fire, a crew of miners ran into thick, black smoke in their primary escape tunnel and had to try to find another way out of the mine. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.
MSHA investigators cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including "prolonged operation" of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.
But the criminal charges Aracoma pleaded guilty to focused on violations that hampered miners trying to evacuate the mine after the fire had started, and prosecutors said that Runyon's case also did not directly involve the circumstances related to the fire.
The charges filed against four more foremen on Thursday also focused on the Aracoma Mine's failure to conduct proper escapeway drills. While the charges filed Thursday did not blame the deaths on that inaction, one of the men charged -- Plumley -- was the foreman on the mine section where Bragg and Hatfield worked.
In a statement issued Thursday, MSHA chief Joe Main said, "Mine managers who shirk their responsibility for ensuring the safety of their miners will be held accountable using all available sanctions under the Mine Act."
Massey issued its own statement saying the company "takes the requirement to conduct escapeway drills seriously and will monitor this situation closely.
"We expect all of our miners to follow state and federal laws a swell as company policies, which are often more stringent," Massey said. "At the same time, we must recognize that the miners who have been charged have due process rights and are presumed innocent until proven guilty."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.