U.S. files criminal charges against W.Va. mine's owner

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The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia has filed criminal charges against a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County, W.Va., where two miners died in January.

U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller said that White Buck Coal Co. officials falsely reported they had done required pre-shift examinations and taken methane and air quality readings at the underground coal mine when they had not. Those violations are considered felony offenses.

The alleged falsifications took place "on numerous occasions" in May and June 2002 at White Buck's Grassy Creek No. 1 mine, located near Leivasy, in Nicholas County, W.Va., according to the filing. Federal records do not indicate any deaths occurred at the mine during that time.

If convicted, White Buck Coal Co. could be fined a maximum of $700,000.

A call to a Massey Energy spokesman for comment yesterday was not returned.

Earlier this month, Mr. Miller opened a criminal investigation into the Jan. 19 Aracoma mine conveyor belt fire that resulted in the deaths of Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47, of Simon, W.Va., and Donald I. Bragg, 33, of Accoville, W.Va. The men were part of a 12-man crew working in Alma No. 1 when the fire broke out, but they became separated from the other 10 men. Their bodies were found in the mine two days later.

The deaths of Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Bragg followed by 17 days the deaths of 12 miners at the Sago mine in Upshur County, W.Va., prompting calls for stronger laws to protect underground coal miners.

But the Aracoma fire took on added significance April 6, when Mr. Miller said federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials had referred the case to his office because they believed criminal activity had occurred. No specifics were provided on what the alleged criminal activity was.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that West Virginia and federal officials, who asked not to be identified, believe someone in the Aracoma mine office blocked the initial fire alarm from sounding that day, then later tried to delete records of the earlier alarm.

Steve Twedt can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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