Former mine boss pleads to lying about methane levels
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- A former foreman at one of West Virginia's largest underground coal mines admitted Wednesday that he lied about conducting a key safety test, as a federal criminal probe continued into allegations that Patriot Coal officials covered up evidence of explosive methane levels at their Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County.
John Renner, 40, of Granville, was charged with one count of making false statements on a safety report required by U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration regulations.
"I plead guilty," Renner told U.S. Magistrate Judge John S. Kaull during an afternoon hearing at the federal courthouse in Clarksburg.
Renner declined the judge's offer to elaborate or make any other statements. But his guilty plea was part of a deal with prosecutors, and Renner has told investigators he was ordered to hide bad methane readings and avoid evacuating the mine because of those readings.
Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, has said his agency is aware of at least five other Federal No. 2 mine managers targeted by the federal criminal investigation.
"The investigation of alleged violations at Federal No. 2 Mine is ongoing," said Acting U.S. Attorney Betsy C. Jividen.
The Federal No. 2 probe focuses on allegations that mine officials covered up explosive levels of methane in the underground operations vast collection of mined out and sealed tunnels. Regulators and safety advocates have been paying closer attention to methane concentrations in sealed areas of underground mines following the deaths four years ago of 12 miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County and five miners at the Darby Mine in Kentucky in sealed-area explosions.
Renner, whose job was exclusively to "fireboss" mine seals, pleaded guilty to falsely indicating in mine records that he conducted methane tests on a particular set of mine seals at Federal No. 2 on Jan. 24.
MSHA special investigator Craig Aaron testified Wednesday that Renner marked in record books that he had checked those seals at 8:29 a.m. that day. But Renner had wrecked his mine vehicle that morning, and was stuck in another part of the mine between 7:45 a.m. and 8:41 a.m., Aaron testified.
Renner himself had told state and federal investigators that his whereabouts at those specific times could be pinned down by checking computer records from the electronic system used to track workers' locations in case of an accident.
Under federal law, Renner could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. But, his plea deal says prosecutors will support his receiving a sentence at the lower end of what is called for by federal guidelines.
It's not clear how long Renner has been cooperating with prosecutors.
State inspectors and MSHA began looking into his activities after receiving a complaint about the Jan. 24 incident. Renner gave an on-the-record interview to MSHA and the state on Jan. 29, and signed a plea deal with prosecutors the following day, records show.
Renner was fired by Patriot after he admitted faking the methane test, and at least two other mine officials have been disciplined by the company. Patriot says it is cooperating with the probe, but has declined further comment.
"The deliberate attempt to falsify records required to be maintained under the Mine Act endangers miners, undermines MSHA's enforcement responsibility, and will be addressed by all available means," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA.
Since Renner told inspectors what he had done, Federal No. 2 has halted and then re-started production at least five times as regulators repeatedly discovered explosive methane levels in periodic tests. Regulators and mine officials are struggling to find a long-term way to deal with the problem.
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator of coal mine health and safety, said the problem sealed areas are located near the bottom of an entry shaft that all of Federal No. 2's workers use every day when they come to work and go home.
Some of the seals are 30 to 40 years old and would not meet modern rules for strength and ability to withstand explosions, Stricklin said. So under MSHA rules, Patriot is obligated to make sure methane concentrations behind the seals are not within the explosive range, roughly 5 percent to 15 percent.
Stricklin said Patriot has brought in additional surface units that pump nitrogen into the sealed area to "inert" the explosive methane levels, something the company may have to do for the remaining work life of the operation.
"We've going to have to evaluate that over time and see how it is working out," Stricklin said in an interview earlier this week.
Federal No. 2 employs about 500 workers and produced nearly 4 million tons of coal in 2009, making it among the state's largest underground mining operations. Hourly workers are members of the United Mine Workers union.
Last year, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis toured the operation and touted it as a model of safety and labor-management cooperation.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.