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Methane test issue started more than a year ago, mine foreman says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Patriot Coal foreman told state and federal investigators he was ordered more than a year ago not to keep records of explosive methane levels he discovered inside sealed portions of the company's Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County.

John Renner of Morgantown said he was also told never to evacuate the huge underground mining operation, regardless of whether mandated methane tests showed dangerous concentrations of the explosive gas.

Renner has been charged with one count of falsifying methane-testing records, but is cooperating with federal prosecutors in an investigation that has targeted at least five other Patriot Coal mine managers at Federal No. 2.

"I'm not going to continue lying for this company," Renner told the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

Renner described the situation at Federal No. 2 in a Jan. 29 interview in Morgantown, a recording of which was provided to the Gazette by the state.

Six months ago, Obama administration Labor Secretary Hilda Solis toured Federal No. 2 and joined company and United Mine Workers officials in touting the mine as a model of good safety practices.

Now, the operation -- which employs nearly 500 workers and produced nearly 4 million tons of coal last year -- is the subject of a broad federal inquiry into allegations of faking key safety reports.

Patriot officials have acknowledged an ongoing investigation "where it is alleged that one or more employees made inaccurate entries in official mine records," but declined further comment.

The investigation focuses on methane tests Patriot Coal is required to take in and around parts of the underground mine that have been sealed off from active production areas. Mine safety regulators are watching sealed areas more closely after explosions in 2006 that killed a total of 17 workers at the Sago Mine in Upshur County and the Darby Mine in Kentucky.

In his Jan. 29 interview, Renner told investigators about an incident in late 2008, when Federal No. 2 was evacuated because of explosive methane levels in a sealed area.

That testing and the evacuation occurred while an MSHA inspector was at the mine, Renner said. But afterward, Renner said, mine ventilation foreman Randy Coffindaffer pulled him aside and told him to ignore poor methane readings unless an MSHA inspector was present.

"He cussed me and screamed at me, told me I was never, ever, under any circumstances [to evacuate the mine]," Renner said. "He said, 'Do you know much money you're costing this company for evacuating [the mine]?<t40>'<t$>"

Renner also described an incident he said occurred in March 2009, when he tried to get Coffindaffer to co-sign a mine safety record book entry that showed dangerous levels of methane in a sealed area.

According to Renner, Coffindaffer ripped the page out of the book.

"It went through the shredder and into the garbage can," Renner said. "He said I better never get caught putting that in the book again."

Coffindaffer was not available Monday afternoon, according to a man who answered the phone at Federal No. 2's main office.

After Renner began talking to investigators, Federal No. 2 has been evacuated three times in the last month because of explosive methane levels found inside sealed areas. The operation remained closed Monday while Patriot Coal and MSHA try to negotiate a solution to the methane levels in those parts of the mine.

Suzy Bohnert, an MSHA spokeswoman, said agency officials were to meet with Patriot again Monday about the issue and would need more time to review the company's proposed plan.

"We do not have a timeline on when Patriot Mine workers may go back to work," Bohnert said. "This will be based on the mine officials' plan to inert the atmosphere in the sealed area."

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


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