Upper Big Branch worker used forged foreman's license
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A month before the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, a Massey Energy worker admitted that he had used what turned out to be a forged foreman's card when he conducted hundreds of mine safety checks at the Raleigh County operation, the Sunday Gazette-Mail has learned.
Thomas Harrah of Seth performed at least 228 pre-shift, on-shift and conveyor belt safety examinations at Upper Big Branch over a nearly two-year period from January 2008 to August 2009, according to state records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Later, state investigators learned that Harrah was using a certification number that actually belonged to another individual. By then, though, Harrah had started using another certification number -- again belonging to a different individual -- and was performing safety checks at another Massey operation, the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine, in August 2009, state records show.
Harrah had a state license to work as an underground coal miner, but he failed the test to become a certified mine foreman. Mine foremen not only supervise other workers, they also perform important safety checks and sign required reports meant to document that any problems discovered are corrected before miners go to work.
On March 9, 2010, the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals suspended Harrah's underground miner license for a year, rejecting a proposal from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training to permanently bar Harrah from working underground in West Virginia.
Last week, some federal and state officials looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster said they had not previously heard details of Harrah's case. Some are now saying the incident deserves a second look, in light of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in more than 40 years.
"It is of grave concern to me that there is a possible improper acquisition of foreman's cards," said Davitt McAteer, who was appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin to conduct an independent review of the disaster. "It is something that we absolutely will have to look into."
C.A. Phillips, acting director of the state mine safety office, said records about the Harrah case are being turned over to federal criminal authorities investigating the mine disaster.
"It's disturbing," Phillips said of the incident.
On Friday, Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, issued a short statement in response to Gazette-Mail questions about the Harrah case.
"This is the type of matter MSHA investigates when it becomes aware of it, but as with any matter that may or may not be under investigation, we cannot comment on whether there is an open investigation into this matter," the MSHA statement said.
Harrah could not be reached for comment.
Shane Harvey, general counsel for Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, said that when Harrah's actions were discovered, the miner left the company before Massey could fire him.
"It appears that Mr. Harrah forged the certification because he was unable to pass the test to obtain the certification," Harvey said. "It does not appear that he blames anyone else for the incident other than himself and we feel confident that no one at Massey helped Mr. Harrah violate the law. We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah's conduct."
Harvey added that Massey has "learned a valuable lesson from the incident."
"We quickly took steps afterward to verify the accuracy of all of our miners' certifications and we will continue to be more vigilant in this area in the future," Harvey said. "We would be in favor of any efforts that could be undertaken to improve the ability of operators or state or federal officials to catch or prevent such behavior."
State investigators apparently began looking into Harrah after he showed up for a required continuing-education training session held by Massey Energy at its Marfork Coal operations on June 6, 2009. By then, Harrah had been working at Upper Big Branch since December 2007.
At that event, taught by longtime Massey safety official Jonah Bowles, Harrah signed in using a foreman's certificate number that belonged to someone else. The number had been assigned to that person on Aug. 28, 2007, the day before Harrah failed the state foreman's examination.
When the training event roster was given to the state so that those who took part could receive credit for attending, state investigators noticed that the number Harrah used wasn't assigned to him.
By Aug. 12, 2009, Harrah had been transferred to Massey's Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine. There, he conducted at least six pre-shift and on-shift safety examinations on Aug. 13 and 14 before he left the company when investigators started questioning his qualifications.
In October 2009, then-state mine safety director Ron Wooten filed a formal petition seeking to have Harrah's license to work underground as a rank-and-file miner permanently revoked.
Harrah appeared at a March 2 hearing before the state mine appeals board -- the body that considers whether to punish miners and foremen who violate safety rules -- without an attorney and offered sometimes-conflicting accounts of what happened.
On the one hand, Harrah told board members that Massey officials had "been pushing me into this bossing stuff and, one day, I came in and -- bam -- there [his foreman's card] is."
Harrah said he wanted to admit to the allegations against him, but insisted several times that he did not actually forge a foreman's card.
"Really and truthfully, I didn't forge any papers," Harrah testified, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Gazette-Mail. "I didn't want to endanger anybody. I'm just not that kind of person."
"They're saying I forged it, but I didn't," Harrah said. "I didn't know the number was somebody else's when I was using it. It's got my name on that card, but I don't know how it got there. I'm in a little bit of a guilty way, because I should have known better than that."
Harrah testified that he did not know whether he passed or failed the test, and that two Massey officials, Jason Whitehead and Rick Hodge, gave him a number to call to check his results. Harrah said he didn't know who he was calling, but when he called the number, he was faxed a paper with a foreman's certification number. He later received a foreman's card with yet another number in the mail, Harrah said.
Clinton Smith, chairman of the mine appeals board, said board members hear only the cases that are before them and saw no need to take any further steps after ruling.
"There was nothing put to us that indicated that it was some sort of vast conspiracy or something else going on," Smith said. "I don't remember there being any testimony about those individuals being involved in any other such incidents."
Across the coal industry, though, miners misstating their fireboss qualifications or working with forged foreman certificates is not that unusual.
Following the Sago Mine disaster in 2006, a former International Coal Group foreman was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to one felony count of falsifying a safety record. Robert L. Dennison was originally charged in a 116-count indictment that focused on 113 instances in which he allegedly certified that he was a licensed foreman when he really wasn't.
Just last week, a miner named Neil A. Hasen was indicted by a federal grand jury in Charleston for allegedly performing five safety examinations at a Mason County mine using another worker's foreman's certification.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office would look closely at any evidence of forging of mine foreman certifications and safety checks done by miners using forged licenses.
"It shouldn't be tolerated if someone didn't have the proper certification, because a mistake can have catastrophic consequences," Goodwin said. "We will be vigilant when something like this occurs."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.