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Miner gets 21 months for lying about foreman's license

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Mercer County man will spend nearly two years in jail after admitting 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.

Craig Belcher, 37, of Bluefield, was sentenced on Monday. He pleaded guilty last July to one criminal count of making a false statement on a record required by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

U.S. District Judge David A. Faber sentenced Belcher to 21 months in prison. Court records show that was at the high end of the 15- to 21-month range recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.

By law, Belcher faced up to a total of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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 Monday that 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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