WASHINGTON -- Criminal investigators sent an unmistakably aggressive signal in probing the fatal Upper Big Branch mine explosion Monday with the arrest of a top security official on a pair of felony charges.
As part of a continuing grand jury investigation, Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, the head of security for Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co., was arrested at his home in Raleigh County, W.Va., and charged with making false statements to federal agents and obstructing a federal investigation. The grand jury, which has been meeting for months in Charleston, W.Va., indicted him last week.
The April 5, 2010, explosion killed 29 men, the deadliest mine disaster in four decades. Mr. Stover is the first person to be charged in the criminal probe, and the grand jury's work appears to be far from finished.
"The conduct charged by the grand jury -- obstruction of justice and false statements to federal investigators -- threatens our effort to find out what happened at Upper Big Branch," U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II said in a news release.
"With 29 coal miners lost and thousands more waiting for answers about what caused the disaster, this inquiry is simply too important to tolerate any attempt to hinder it. My office will continue to devote every available resource to this most critical of cases."
The alleged conduct comes as little surprise to followers of the investigation, as a culture of tipping off mine personnel to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections was detailed publicly at a U.S. House field hearing in West Virginia last year.
But for the U.S. attorney to indict a mid-level Massey employee for a practice that is fairly common in mine death investigations is significant, said former prosecutor and MSHA official Tony Oppegard.
"The U.S. attorney is sending a message to Massey that the government is very serious about this investigation and if they learn or believe that witnesses are being untruthful or otherwise somehow impeding their investigation, that they're going to go after them," said Mr. Oppegard, who called the charge "very rare" in these types of cases.
Of the four high-profile multiple-fatality mine accidents in 2006 and 2007 -- two in West Virginia, one in Kentucky and one in Utah -- only a fire in Aracoma, W.Va., that killed two men resulted in criminal indictments. MSHA, which declined to comment on Monday's indictment, could not immediately provide records for criminal charges in past mine disasters.
The charges are among the most significant at the grand jury's disposal. Intentionally maintaining a hazardous mine -- or even tipping off underground employees to inspectors -- isn't a felony, but covering it up can be.
In the indictment of Mr. Stover, unsealed Monday, the grand jury found that Mr. Stover made false statements to an FBI agent and an MSHA investigator in January. Mr. Stover, according to the indictment, explicitly told security guards to notify other mine employees when inspectors arrived to examine conditions at the mine.
This practice -- which allows underground workers to quickly tidy up any potential violations -- is illegal, and when investigators asked Mr. Stover about it, he denied doing so and said he would have fired any security guard who spread word of inspectors' arrival, the indictment states.
The indictment also states that Mr. Stover had an unnamed person dispose of thousands of pages of security-related documents from the mine in order to inhibit the investigation. Among the documents thrown in a trash compactor, according to the indictment, were records of MSHA inspectors' presence at the mine in past years.
As the head of security for performance, Mr. Stover oversaw security operations at Upper Big Branch and at least two other mines.
Massey put out an unsigned statement Monday distancing company policy from Mr. Stover's alleged actions and pledging cooperation with federal investigators. Massey stated that "the Company notified the U.S. Attorney's office within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over to the U.S. Attorney's office."
The indictment states that "these documents were later recovered after the federal government inquired about their existence in the course of its investigation."
Former MSHA head J. Davitt McAteer, who is leading an independent investigation into the explosion, said his panel had interviewed Mr. Stover but he wouldn't comment on his interviews. He said that the indictment indicates a particularly troubling practice.
"This wasn't a happenstance," he said. "This wasn't a casual conversation. But rather it looks like a practice and a scheme that was very much involved in the day-to-day operation for this mine. It is very disturbing."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the revelations illustrate the need for the new mine safety law he drafted last year, which would make providing advance notice of inspectors' presence on a mine site a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
The bill, named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., passed the House but never went anywhere in the Senate.
"This despicable conduct to provide advance notice of inspections alleged in the indictment likely impaired MSHA's ability to detect violations that could have saved lives," Mr. Miller said in a statement.
As the grand jury probe continues, Mr. Oppegard said prosecutors likely will try to get Mr. Stover to provide information about company higher-ups who might have directed him to destroy documents.
"If he was instructed, you're going to have some nervous people higher up on the chain of command," he said.
The FBI and the Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General are leading the investigation, with assistance from MSHA investigators.
MSHA has delayed issuing its final report on the explosion until after the criminal investigation is finished. The massive explosion is believed to have been caused by methane, amplified by floating coal dust.
Daniel Malloy: email@example.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.