CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three West Virginia men have admitted that they lied about having foremen's licenses when they conducted hundreds of mine safety checks in Mason, Nicholas and Wyoming counties.
Chad J. Ferrell of Nettie and Luke W. Pugh of Jane Lew pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Elkins. Neil A. Hasen of Alkol pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Huntington.
In deals with federal prosecutors, each of the men pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements on documents required by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The cases are part of a string of incidents in West Virginia involving falsification of mine foreman's licenses and lying about such licenses when conducting key examinations meant to find and fix safety problems in the mines.
"We will use all available means to hold accountable those who endanger miner safety and health by falsifying required mine examination reports," Joe Main, assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, said in a statement regarding the Ferrell and Pugh plea bargains.
West Virginia regulators have suspended or revoked the mining licenses of three former Massey Energy workers -- including one from the Upper Big Branch Mine -- based on similar allegations. So far, no criminal charges have been brought in those cases.
In West Virginia, the state requires training and certification for underground and surface mine workers. Mine foremen must take separate training and obtain separate licenses. 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, state officials handle the licensing and certification of foremen. But federal citations -- and potentially criminal charges -- can be involved if foremen who used forged or otherwise phony certificates sign mine safety reports indicating that they are properly licensed when they really are not. Lying on such reports is a felony.
Ferrell was originally charged in a 30-count indictment that alleged he lied about having a foreman's license when he performed safety examinations in 2008 and 2009 at the Brooks Run Mining Poplar Ridge Mine in Webster County. Brooks Run is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources.
In his plea agreement, Ferrell pleaded guilty to one criminal count, but also stipulated that he lied about his lack of a foreman's certification when he performed 489 mine safety examinations between September 2008 and June 2009.