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Criminal probe continues at Federal No. 2 Mine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal authorities expect to continue working into early next year on a criminal probe at Patriot Coal's Federal No. 2 Mine, a Monongalia County operation once praised by regulators, labor and management as a model coal mine.

One former Federal No. 2 foreman has already pleaded guilty in the probe and is cooperating with prosecutors in the ongoing probe, according to court records.

John Renner of Granville was scheduled to be sentenced next week after he pleaded guilty to one court of making a false statement on a required U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration safety report.

But last week, U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley cancelled Renner's sentencing hearing at the request of federal prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II had asked Keeley to postpone the hearing until after April 1, 2011, saying that Renner "is still cooperating in an ongoing investigation." Keeley granted the motion, and instructed prosecutors to inform her when they want to reschedule the sentencing hearing.

The Federal No. 2 probe focuses on allegations that mine officials covered up explosive levels of methane in the underground operation's vast collection of mined out and sealed tunnels. Regulators and safety advocates have been paying much closer attention to methane buildups in sealed areas following the deaths in 2006 of 12 miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County and five miners at the Darby Mine in Kentucky in sealed-area explosions.

Renner, whose job at Federal No. 2 was exclusively to "fireboss" the mine's seals, pleaded guilty in March to falsely indicating in mine records that he conducted methane tests on a particular set of mine seals on Jan. 24.

Under federal law, Renner could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. But in a plea deal, prosecutors agreed to support his receiving a sentence at the lower end of what is called for by federal guidelines.

After Renner told state and federal officials what he had done, production at Federal No. 2 was halted and then re-started repeatedly as Patriot struggled to find a long-term way to deal with the methane problem in its sealed areas.

In a January 2010 interview with investigators, Renner said he had been ordered more than a year before not to keep records of any explosive levels of methane he found behind mine seals and never to evacuate the mine because of those methane readings.

Patriot Coal told shareholders in its November quarterly report that one employee -- Renner -- had been fired and two others resigned after being placed on administrative leave as part of the company's investigation of the methane test issues. Patriot said government investigators have subpoenaed and been given methane testing equipment and methane testing records from Federal No. 2.

Federal No. 2 employs about 500 workers and produced nearly 4 million tons of coal in 2009, making it among the state's largest underground operations. Hourly workers are members of the United Mine Workers union. Last year, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis toured the operation and touted it as a model of safety and labor-management relations.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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