The former security chief at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine — the site of an April, 2010 explosion that killed 29 men — has been convicted of lying to investigators who were probing the disaster
It took federal jurors in Beckley, W. Va., about six hours to find the Massey Energy security official, Hughie Elbert Stover, guilty on a false statements charge as well as on a charge of obstruction stemming from his effort to destroy of thousands of security-related documents. The jurors began deliberating Wednesday morning after hearing two days of testimony.
As The Charleston Gazette reports, Stover now faces up to 25 years in prison on the two felony convictions. Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 29.
Authorities said Stover lied to investigators when he denied that mine guards were told to tip off other workers by radio when inspectors entered the site. Providing that type of advance notice of inspections is illegal. In addition, authorities said Stover directed a subordinate to destroy documents to cover up his lie.
“This will send a very clear message that this is way too important an investigation to obstruct,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Beckley. “We need to get to the bottom of what circumstances led to this explosion and who was responsible.”
But defense lawyer Bill Wilmouth countered that Stover was a scapegoat. He said federal authorities “couldn’t get you some executive who cut corners or shaved expenses. Instead, this is who they brought you — a man who accidentally threw away some documents without thinking.”
Stover is the second person convicted in what government officials have described as a widespread criminal probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in four decades.
Last month, Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah was sentenced to 10 months in jail. Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman’s license when he performed key mine safety examinations in 2008 and 2009, and to then lying to investigators about his actions.
An independent investigation, a union probe and preliminary findings of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have blamed the mine explosion on Massey’s failure to maintain mining equipment, provide adequate underground ventilation and properly clean explosive coal dust from mine tunnels.
State and federal investigations into the mine disaster are continuing.
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