Murray mine maintenance chief admits faking safety record

A maintenance director at a Murray Energy underground coal mine in western Kentucky has admitted he made false statements in mine safety records by indicating he performed important safety examinations that he never actually conducted, according to court records and statements from federal prosecutors.

Daniel L. Couch Jr. pleaded guilty to one criminal count in a deal with prosecutors, according to the records from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.

Couch admitted that he made the false statements on mine examination records for electrical equipment at the KenAmerican Resources Paradise No. 9 Mine in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

Last year, the Paradise No. 9 Mine produced about 1.9 million tons of coal with 229 employees, according to data the company reported to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. MSHA lists the operation as being controlled by Robert E. Murray, who is president and CEO of Murray Energy.

In an emailed statement, Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent said Tuesday morning, “KenAmerican Resources, Inc. is aware of this matter and has taken appropriate action to address it. We have no further comment at this time.”

The case against Couch included no charges against either KenAmerican or Murray Energy.

Couch entered his guilty plea last week during a hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. in Owensboro, Kentucky, after initially being charged in February. U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. issued a press release on Monday to announce the plea agreement.

“Falsifying a record jeopardizes the safety of mine workers and is a crime,” Kuhn said in the press release, which did not identify KenAmerican’s parent company.

Murray Energy is West Virginia’s largest coal producer and CEO Robert E. Murray is among the most prominent spokesmen and defenders of the coal industry.

The company and its president have recently been in the news after they filed defamation suits against The New York Times and HBO personality John Oliver over an editorial and a television commentary that, among other things, questioned the company’s safety record. Murray’s lawyers said in the suit against Oliver that Murray “is and has been unwavering in his insistence upon safe working conditions and the pursuit of policies and practices that promote and reward safety above all else.”

In the Kentucky criminal case, a federal grand jury indicted Couch on Feb. 8, alleging two counts of making false statements on records required to be maintained under the federal mine safety law. Under the law, all electrical equipment must be frequently examined, tested and properly maintained, and a record of examinations of such equipment must be maintained and made available to MSHA inspectors.

The indictment alleged that on May 17, 2016, an MSHA inspector checked the record book in which fire suppression examinations by the mine operator are required to be recorded. The book in question involved an area of the mine, identified as “coal seam 11,” that contained seven separate conveyor belt drives.

At the time of that inspection, the book “revealed that no fire suppression checks had occurred for the week of May 1 though May 7, 2016.”

Two days later, on May 19, 2016, the MSHA inspector returned to the Paradise No. 9 Mine and re-examined the same company record book, and found that it now “revealed that the aforesaid belt drives had been examined on May 7, 2016” by Couch and that “no hazards had been found.”

The indictment alleged that on or about May 17, 2016, Couch “did knowingly make a false statement in a record required to be maintained at a coal mine, that is, that an examination of electrical equipment had occurred on the belt drive of coal seam 11 at Paradise No. 9 Mine, between May 1 and May 7, 2016, when in fact it had not.”

“The blank entries which [the MSHA inspector] had seen on May 17 had been filled in and signed by Dan Couch and dated May 7,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ream said during last week’s plea hearing. “These inspections had been post-dated and filled out after the fact by Mr. Couch.”

The indictment also alleged that Couch lied to an MSHA inspector on May 19 by saying he had examined the electrical equipment on the belt drive on May 7, 2016, when in fact he “had not been underground at the mine on that date and had not conducted said inspection.”

In the plea agreement, Couch pleaded guilty to the first count of the indictment, which alleged he made a false statement in the electrical examination book. Prosecutors agreed to drop the second count of the indictment.

The charge to which Couch admitted his guilt is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a maximum fine of $250,000, and a three-year term of supervised release.

Under the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to calculations under the advisory federal sentencing guidelines that, assuming no prior criminal history, would put Couch’s recommended sentence at between zero and six months in prison.

Prosecutors also agreed that at Couch’s sentencing, the government would tell the court that a sentence of two years probation “is the appropriate disposition of this case.” The plea agreement was proposed to the court under a section of federal criminal rules that will allow Crouch to withdraw his guilty plea if McKinley does not go along with the sentence recommended by prosecutors.

Couch is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 17. Couch remains free on the same personal recognizance bond approved by the court following his initial appearance earlier this year.

Court records say that Couch “was chief of maintenance” at the mine. Murray’s spokesman declined to confirm Couch’s status with the company, saying he couldn’t comment beyond the prepared statement. During last week’s plea hearing, Couch told the court he was not currently employed.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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