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Miners admit lying about licenses

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three West Virginia men have admitted that they lied about having foremen's licenses when they conducted hundreds of mine safety checks in Mason, Nicholas and Wyoming counties.

Chad J. Ferrell of Nettie and Luke W. Pugh of Jane Lew pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Elkins. Neil A. Hasen of Alkol pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Huntington.

In deals with federal prosecutors, each of the men pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements on documents required by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The cases are part of a string of incidents in West Virginia involving falsification of mine foreman's licenses and lying about such licenses when conducting key examinations meant to find and fix safety problems in the mines.

"We will use all available means to hold accountable those who endanger miner safety and health by falsifying required mine examination reports," Joe Main, assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, said in a statement regarding the Ferrell and Pugh plea bargains.

West Virginia regulators have suspended or revoked the mining licenses of three former Massey Energy workers -- including one from the Upper Big Branch Mine -- based on similar allegations. So far, no criminal charges have been brought in those cases.

In West Virginia, the state requires training and certification for underground and surface mine workers. Mine foremen must take separate training and obtain separate licenses. 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.

Generally, state officials handle the licensing and certification of foremen. But federal citations -- and potentially criminal charges -- can be involved if foremen who used forged or otherwise phony certificates sign mine safety reports indicating that they are properly licensed when they really are not. Lying on such reports is a felony.

Ferrell was originally charged in a 30-count indictment that alleged he lied about having a foreman's license when he performed safety examinations in 2008 and 2009 at the Brooks Run Mining Poplar Ridge Mine in Webster County. Brooks Run is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources.

In his plea agreement, Ferrell pleaded guilty to one criminal count, but also stipulated that he lied about his lack of a foreman's certification when he performed 489 mine safety examinations between September 2008 and June 2009.

Pugh was originally charged in a 37-count indictment that alleged he lied on safety examination forms at Carter Roag Coal Co.'s Pleasant Hill Mine in Randolph County.

Pugh pleaded guilty to one count, but also stipulated that he lied about having a foreman's certification when he performed 387 mine safety examinations between June 2007 and April 2009.

Ferrell and Pugh each face potential sentences of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II.

Hasen was originally charged in a five-count indictment that alleged he performed "numerous" mine safety checks, signing that he had a foreman's certification when he did not.

Hasen pleaded guilty to one criminal count and admitted that he used another workers' foreman's certification number when signing reports concerning two dozen mine safety examinations.

Court records indicate Hasen faces a potential sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

In the Massey cases, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has suspended the licenses of former Massey workers Thomas Harrah, Craig Belcher and Scott Jeffrey for allegedly using forged foreman's certifications.

Harrah admitted that he performed at least 228 pre-shift, on-shift and conveyor belt examinations at Upper Big Branch over a nearly two-year period from January 2008 to August 2009.

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


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