BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A former employee of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was sentenced Thursday to spend 10 months in jail after he admitted faking a foreman's license and lying to investigators looking into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Raleigh County operation.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger sentenced Thomas Harrah, 46, of Seth for two felony counts that Harrah admitted to as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
"You potentially put lives at risk," Berger told Harrah during a sentencing hearing in Beckley.
In April, Harrah had pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at Upper Big Branch for nearly two years, between January 2008 and August 2009. Harrah also admitted that he initially lied to government agents when he suggested that officials from Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary had helped him obtain a forged foreman's certificate.
"I realize I was wrong," Harrah told the judge. "I'm disappointed with myself."
Harrah was transferred from Upper Big Branch to another Massey mine eight months before the mine disaster, and prosecutors have not alleged that his actions had anything to do with the April 5, 2010, explosion.
But prosecutors and federal mine safety officials have touted Harrah's prosecution as being a result of a broad and complex ongoing criminal probe of the disaster.
"This sentence sends an important and unmistakable message: If you break the law and threaten the lives of coal miners, you should expect prison time," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a press release.
So far, one other person has been charge criminally as part of the Upper Big Branch probe. Hughie Elbert Stover, security director for Performance Coal, was charged with three felony counts alleging he tried to divert government agents investigating the disaster. Stover has pleaded not guilty and trial is scheduled for late October.
Under federal mine safety law, employees with special training and state licenses are required to perform a variety of daily, weekly and other periodic mine safety checks. Companies must keep records of these examinations, and of whatever steps were taken to ensure hazards are corrected before miners go to work.
In recent years, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training has stepped up its enforcement of West Virginia's licensing requirements for foremen, successfully seeking suspensions of industry employees who lied about having such licenses.
Federal prosecutors and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have come in after several of those state efforts, and brought federal criminal charges in a handful of cases.
"Falsification of mine examinations risks miner safety and MSHA will continue to aggressively pursue such cases," said MSHA chief Joe Main.