BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A Massey Energy security director lied to federal agents and tried to destroy potential evidence in the investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, prosecutors told a federal jury Monday morning. "In fact, Mr. Stover's security guards did announce the arrival of inspectors. They did that because he trained them to do so," said Phil Wright, assistant U.S. Attorney.Trial began this morning with opening statements in the trial of Hughie Elbert Stover, security director at Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, which operated the Upper Big Branch Mine.Originally, Stover was charged in March in a two-count indictment alleging that he lied to FBI agents and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and then tried to destroy thousands of pages of security documents that investigators believed could shed light on how Massey handles inspection warnings.
In May, Stover was charged with a third count, this one alleging that he also lied to MSHA investigators conducting the civil investigation of the disaster. The original indictment was based on testimony of FBI and MSHA agents, while the additional charge drew on a formal interview taken down word-for-word by a court reporter.Late last week, prosecutors are dropped one of the original two counts, involving allegations that Stover lied to the FBI and MSHA during an unrecorded interview in January.Defense attorney Bill Wilmoth told jurors that Massey lawyers had signed off on the general policy of announcing all non-company visitors to the mine site.Wilmoth also accused prosecutors of a "rush to judgment" in Stover's case, while not bringing charges against anyone actually responsible for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners."We all want to see some justice for that, but after 568 days, countless man hours of agents scouring southern West Virginia and millions of dollars, the government brings its first case against a security guard," Wilmoth said.U.S. District Judge Irene Berger said the trial is expected to last three to four days.The government alleges that Stover initially lied about inspection warnings during a transcribed interview in November 2010 with a civil investigation team composed of MSHA officials, state inspectors and special investigator Davitt McAteer.If convicted of the two remaining charges, Stover would still face up to 25 years in prison.Federal law generally prohibits advance notification of any MSHA inspection, and since the Upper Big Branch explosion agency officials have been cracking down on what many say is a widespread industry practice that was raised by families of the Upper Big Branch miners during a congressional field hearing held in Beckley just weeks after the disaster.Court records say that FBI agents and MSHA special investigators have been looking into allegations that advance notice of inspections "had been given on a regular and continuing basis" at the Upper Big Branch Mine.Providing advance notice of inspections is a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail. Legislation to make it felony with stiffer penalties is stalled in Congress.
Stover is one of two people charged criminally so far in a sprawling federal criminal probe of Upper Big Branch. The April 5, 2010, explosion was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.Last month, Berger sentenced former Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah to 10 months in jail. Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009 and to then lying to investigators about his actions.A report by special investigator Davitt McAteer and preliminary findings from MSHA agreed that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that turned into a massive coal-dust blast because of Massey's poor safety practices.Investigators believe the ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer. They also believe that a coal-dust buildup underground sent what could have been a minor ignition into an explosion that rocketed in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths.The McAteer team concluded the disaster was caused by Massey's failure to follow basic safety standards, and by a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of worker safety. McAteer and his team cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer.The McAteer report also criticized the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training and said the fact that 29 miners died in a mine explosion was proof positive that MSHA "failed its duty as a watchdog for coal miners."
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June, has said it is still reviewing the disaster.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.