Ex-Massey miner says he made up license number
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A former Massey Energy miner charged in the federal investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster has admitted he made up a license number that he used to illegally perform safety checks at the Raleigh County mine.
Thomas Harrah, 45, of Seth, entered a guilty plea Wednesday, three weeks after he was charged with making a false statement on a mine safety inspection document and lying to FBI and Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators.
Harrah faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the two charges when he's sentenced Aug. 11.
The charges centered on allegations that Harrah conducted numerous safety exams at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. Harrah no longer worked there when 29 miners were killed in an April 2010 explosion.
Prosecutors say the charges came out of the ongoing criminal investigation into the disaster. Harrah is cooperating with investigators.
A second Massey worker, Upper Big Branch security director Hughie Elbert Stover, has pleaded innocent to charges that he lied to federal investigators and tried to destroy documents sought in the probe.
Federal investigators went after Harrah after state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training officials discovered that Harrah used a fake foreman's license when 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.
Harrah had a state license to work as an underground coal miner, but failed the test required for a foreman's license, state records show. Mine foremen not only supervise other workers, but also perform important safety checks and sign required reports meant to document that any problems discovered are corrected before miners go to work.
State investigators discovered that Harrah was using a foreman's license number that was assigned to another person. Harrah used the license number when he signed in at a required continuing education session held by Massey at its Marfork Coal operations in June 2009. State investigators picked up on the problem when they went through the list of attendees to give them credit for the training, records show.
Harrah was using a certification number that had been assigned to someone else on Aug. 28, 2007, the day before Harrah failed the foreman's test. By the time he was caught, Harrah had been using the fake license for nearly two years, and had moved on to another Massey operation, the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine, in August 2009, state records show.
Court records filed with Harrah's formal plea agreement provided a few new details, especially regarding his initial statement to investigators that suggested that officials from Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary had helped him obtain a forged foreman's certification.
A joint "stipulation of facts" states that, six days after making those initial allegations, Harrah admitted in an Oct. 28, 2010, interview that he had been dishonest with the FBI and MSHA in the first interview.
"When he failed the examination, the Performance Coal officer did not give him a number to call, but instead discussed with him the possibility of retaking the examination," the stipulation says. "Harrah did not retake the examination.
"Instead, a couple weeks after learning that he failed the examination, he reviewed the examination book, and saw the foreman's numbers for those who had recently passed the examination," it says. "He changed a couple of digits on one of those numbers and a couple of months later he began using that number to sign pre-shift and on-shift examination books at the Upper Big Branch Mine."