Foreman charged as probe continues at Federal No. 2 Mine
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Patriot Coal foreman who is cooperating with federal investigators has been charged with faking a methane test in the first formal action in a broad criminal probe at Patriot's Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County.
At the same time, documents released by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration indicate explosive methane levels in sealed areas of Federal No. 2 date back to at least Jan. 29 -- two weeks before the first mine evacuation reported by MSHA or Patriot when the problems became public earlier this week.
On Monday, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said Patriot had evacuated the mine on Feb. 12 and Feb. 18 after tests revealed explosive levels of methane in a sealed portion of the sprawling underground complex.
Those tests came after mine foreman John Renner told state investigators he had faked a methane test of the sealed area on Jan. 24, and also gave state officials information that led them to believe falsification of key mine safety reports -- a felony under federal law -- was more widespread at Federal No. 2.
Patriot said in a statement issued Tuesday that the company "is cooperating" with an investigation "where it is alleged that one or more employees made inaccurate entries in official mine records."
"The company has disclosed the information to the appropriate authorities and will take appropriate action after the facts become clearer," Patriot said. "The company does not intend to comment on the investigation while it is pending."
Federal No. 2 is among the largest underground coal mines in West Virginia. It employs about 500 workers and produced nearly 4 million tons of coal in 2009. Hourly employees are members of the United Mine Workers union.
Six months ago, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis toured Federal No. 2 with Patriot CEO Richard Whiting and UMW President Cecil Roberts. She emerged from the underground visit and proclaimed the operation a model of safety, efficiency and labor-management cooperation.
On Monday, after declining to comment on their ongoing investigation, federal prosecutors later filed an "information" that charged Renner with one count of making false statements on required mine safety reports.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Angus Morgan alleged in the information that Renner certified "that he had conducted an examination of the No. 27 block seal for the Federal No. 2 Mine when, in fact ... [he] knew that he had not made such an examination."
If convicted of that felony charge, Renner could face up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
But, federal rules prohibit prosecutors from using an "information" -- as opposed to an indictment -- to charge people with felonies, unless those people agree to allow the charge to be filed that way. And generally, the charge through an information is an indication that a defendant is cooperating with employees.
Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said earlier this week that prosecutors have targeted at least five other individuals at the Federal No. 2 Mine. And a lawyer for Renner said his client has been working with prosecutors "for some time now" and had been pressured to overlook safety problems.
Meanwhile, Patriot officials continue to negotiate with MSHA over plans to deal with the methane levels in Federal No. 2's sealed areas. Regulators and safety advocates are paying closer attention to methane gas in areas of underground mines that have been played out and sealed, following the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W.Va., and five miners at the Darby Mine in Kentucky in sealed-area explosions.
Generally, federal rules now require mine operators to evacuate workers when they discover through mandated testing that methane inside sealed portions of the mine is within an explosive range.
MSHA indicated earlier this week that Patriot had done that on Feb. 12 and again on Feb. 18.
Starting after the Feb. 12 incident, Federal No. 2 officials have been trying to come up with a plan to deal with the problem. Initially, MSHA on Feb. 17 approved a plan for Patriot to inject nitrogen into the sealed area to "inert" the explosive methane. The plan covered a part of the mine MSHA officials referred to as "1 West No. 1 through No. 10 sealed area."
But on Feb. 18, MSHA withdrew that approval after new tests and another mine evacuation that day.
And then, on Feb. 19, MSHA District Manager Bob Cornett told Federal No. 2 Vice president Joseph McGill in a letter that federal officials had determined the mine's methane sampling points in that sealed area were too close to the holes where Patriot planned to inject nitrogen.
"In order to effectively evaluate the sealed areas of the mine, additional sampling locations may be necessary," Cornett wrote.
Also, Cornett said in that letter that samples taken on Jan. 29 had revealed explosive levels of methane in the "3 North seal set" section of the Federal No. 2 operation.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.