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Miner pleads guilty to faking foreman's card

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Mercer County man admitted on Monday that he faked having a foreman's certificate when he performed safety checks at four different Southern West Virginia coal mines over an 18-month period, court records show.

Craig Belcher, 36, of Bluefield, pleaded guilty to one criminal count of making a false statement on a record required by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the records show.

In an agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Belcher pleaded guilty to entering a false certification number on a pre-shift examination form at then-Massey Energy subsidiary Spartan Mining's Road Fork No. 51 Mine in Wyoming County in January 2009.

Belcher had originally pleaded not guilty to a four-count grand jury indictment and trial had been scheduled to begin today in U.S. District Court in Bluefield.

Now, Belcher faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when Senior U.S. District Judge David A. Faber sentences him Dec. 2.

Belcher was originally charged with lying about having a foreman's certification to perform required safety checks at 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. Frasure Creek was owned by Essar, while Pay Car and Double Bonus were controlled by Mechel OAO.

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

If convicted, Belcher could have faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 for each of the four felony counts.

As part of a "stipulation of facts" filed with Belcher's plea agreement, Belcher agreed that he had also faked foreman's certificates while working at the Frasure Creek, Pay Car and Double Bonus operations, as alleged in the original indictment.

"Mr. Belcher has never held a foreman or assistant foreman's certification," the stipulation says. "He knew he was not qualified to certify that pre-shift and on-shift examinations had been completed at any of these mines."

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.

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

 


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