Federal agents have arrested the head of security at the Upper Big Branch mine and charged him with obstructing the investigation into last year’s explosion at the West Virginia operation, which killed 29 people and was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.
As the The Washington Post reports, a federal grand jury delivered an indictment accusing Hughie Elbert Stover of obstruction of justice and making false statements to federal authorities. Stover allegedly told investigators that there was no practice at Massey Energy, which owned Upper Big Branch, of security guards warning mine workers when inspectors arrived at the site to give employees time to cover up evidence of violations.
The indictment charges that, in fact, there was such a procedure, and Stover personally told security guards to carry it out. Stover also is charged with instructing a subordinate to destroy thousands of pages of documents regarding previous inspections of Massey sites.
Stover, who also headed security at two other Massey sites and provided personal security for the recently retired chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, is the first company official to be hit with criminal charges. Experts say the charges suggest that the Justice Department is looking into possible criminal wrongdoing by Massey, on top of the numerous company safety violations already cited.
“They are being thorough and they are being comprehensive,” Davitt McAteer, chair of an independent West Virginia state commission that also is probing the disaster, told the Post regarding the federal criminal investigation.
Massey officials said that within hours of learning of the destroyed documents, they alerted federal investigators, and took steps to recover the materials.
“The company takes this matter very seriously and is committed to cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office,” general cousel Shane Harvey said.