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Miner charged with faking foreman's license

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Bluefield coal miner was charged this week with faking a foreman's certification when he performed safety checks at four Southern West Virginia mining operations over an 18-month period, court records show.

Craig Belcher, 36, was charged in a four-count grand jury indictment with four counts of providing a false statement in U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration documents.

If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the four counts.

Belcher's case is the latest in a series of federal criminal charges and state licensing actions brought against miners who pretended to be certified foremen or lied about required safety examinations at mining operations.

The charges against Belcher allege he faked having a foreman's certificate between January 2009 and July 2010 while working for Spartan Mining Co.'s Road Fork No. 51 Mine in Wyoming County, Frasure Creek Mining's Mine No. 15 in Fayette County, Pay Car Mining's Mine No. 58 in McDowell County, and Double Bonus Coal's Mine No. 65 in Wyoming County.

At the time, Spartan Mining was a Massey Energy subsidiary. Frasure Creek was owned by Essar, while Pay Car and Double Bonus were controlled by Mechel OAO.

The indictment alleges that Belcher signed pre-shift and on-shift reports indicating that he had properly examined particular sections of each mining operation. It further alleges that Belcher was not certified as a foreman when those reports were completed. It also alleges Belcher falsified foreman's certificate numbers on the safety reports, using license numbers that did not belong to him.

In West Virginia, the state requires training and certification for underground and surface mine workers. Mine foremen must take separate training and obtain a separate license. 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, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training handles the licensing and certification of foremen. But federal citations -- and potentially criminal charges -- can be involved if foremen who used forged certificates sign mine safety reports indicating that they are properly licensed when they really are not.

In Belcher's case, for example, state officials in February 2009 had suspended Belcher's existing license, which allowed him to work as an underground miner, but not a foreman. The state mine safety agency's website indicated his mining license was suspended "pending further action" by an appeals board, but no further action is listed.

One former employee of Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, Thomas Harrah of Seth, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted faking a foreman's license and lying to investigators looking into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at that Raleigh county operation.

Harrah had pleaded guilty to faking the license while he performed key mine safety examinations at Upper Big Branch for nearly two years, between January 2008 and August 2009. Harrah also admitted that he lied to government agents when he suggested that officials from Massey's Performance Coal subsidiary had helped him obtain a forged foreman's certificate.

In June 2011, U.S. District Chief Judge John Preston Bailey in Elkins sentenced Luke W. Pugh of Jane Lew to one year in jail after Pugh admitted to one felony county that alleged he lied about his credentials during six safety examinations at Carter Roag Coal Co.'s Pleasant Hill Mine in Randolph County in June 2007.

In two other recent and similar cases -- one in Northern West Virginia and another in the state's southern coalfields -- mine workers received probation after pleading guilty to faking foreman's credentials.

Bailey sentenced Chad J. Ferrell of Nettie to five years of probation after he admitted lying on nearly 500 occasions about his lack of a foreman's license at Alpha Natural Resources' Poplar Ridge No. 1 Deep Mine in Webster County. U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers sentenced Neil A. Hasen of Alkol to three years of probation after Hasen admitted to lying about his qualifications on more than two dozen occasions at Big River Mining's Broad Run Mine in Mason County.

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


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