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Massey foreman fined $1,000 for not conducting drills

Read more in Coal TattooA foreman at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine will pay a $1,000 criminal fine after he admitted that he didn't conduct required evacuation drills prior to the January 2006 fire that killed two miners.

U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. also sentenced David R. Runyon to one year of probation for the misdemeanor conviction of violating a mandatory federal mine safety and health standard.

Copenhaver said evidence indicated Runyon's crime did not cause or contribute to the fire or the fatalities, but that the importance of the mine escape drills "is exemplified" by the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.

"You made serious and grave errors in not conducting the drills that were expected of you as foreman," Copenhaver told Runyon.

Prosecutors originally charged Runyon in a five-count indictment that included three felony charges of faking mine safety reporting documents to make it appear that the required drills had been performed.

In February, he reached a plea deal in which he promised to help with the ongoing criminal probe of the Aracoma fire. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the three felonies and one misdemeanor, reducing Runyon's total possible sentence from up to 17 years in prison and a fine of $950,000 to no more than one year in jail and a fine of up to $100,000.

After federal sentencing guidelines were applied to Runyon's particular case, he faced up to six months in prison and a fine of between $500 and $5,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunter Smith told Copenhaver that Runyon had spent several hours in interviews with prosecutors, helping them understand the mine layout.

"He gave us an understanding about how really messed up the maps and the markings were in that part of the mine," Smith said. That information "won't necessarily yield any additional prosecutions," but helped investigators understand what was going on in the mine, Smith told the judge.

Already, Aracoma pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and agreed to pay $2.5 million in criminal fines. Aracoma also agreed to pay $1.7 million in civil fines to resolve more than 1,300 civil violations cited by MSHA following the fire.

During the fire, a crew of miners ran into thick, black smoke in their primary escape tunnel and had to try to find another way out of the mine. Bragg and Hatfield became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

But, prosecutors and defense lawyer Nick Preservati pointed out that Runyon was a foreman in a separate part of the mine from where Bragg and Hatfield worked, and Runyon's crew all escaped the mine alive the night of the fire.

Preservati tried unsuccessfully to have any mention of the fatal fire removed from Runyon's pre-sentencing report, and then criticized media coverage that linked Runyon's conduct to the fire.

"As much as we tried to tell them this is unrelated to the fire, it has continued to be reported that he was the foreman at the mine," Preservati said. Runyon has continued to work as an Aracoma foreman since the fatal fire, and in May 2008, he was the section foreman in an area of the mine where another worker was electrocuted.

Massey electrician Nathan Dove, 24, of Chattaroy, was electrocuted while he tried to repair a power cable for an underground mine shuttle car. State investigators cited the company because no one turned the electricity off before Dove began his work.

Under his plea deal, Runyon must permanently surrender his license to work as a mine foreman in West Virginia.

Preservati said Runyon will probably be able to keep a job with Massey, but would see his $4,500-per-month salary cut by $1,000 to $1,500 per month without his foreman's card. Preservati said Runyon's wife might have to go back to work.

Runyon has a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. The daughter might now have to take out student loans to attend college, Preservati said.

"Despite this serious mistake, you're a good man," Copenhaver told Runyon.

Copenhaver said the case reminded him of the convictions two years ago of a shift foreman and a miner from Massey's White Buck Coal Co. for similar violations. White Buck also pleaded guilty in that case.

"I hope that by this time, that these two cases, with the attention they've received, will persuade all those in similar positions as yours to obey the law," Copenhaver said.

Prosecutors are continuing their investigation of the Aracoma fire. Several other mine managers have indicated publicly that they are targets of the probe, and the state has sought to revoke or suspend licenses of many of the mine's manager. Those cases are on hold pending the federal criminal probe.

In the plea agreement with Aracoma Coal, prosecutors pledged not to pursue charges against parent company Massey or any of its officers or employees and said the government "does not have evidence suggesting that Massey knew, approved or acquiesced in, Aracoma's failure to maintain true and accurate records of escapeway drills."

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


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