Federal law generally prohibits advance notification of any MSHA inspection, and since the Upper Big Branch explosion agency officials have been cracking down on what many say is a widespread industry practice that was raised by families of the Upper Big Branch miners during a congressional field hearing held in Beckley just weeks after the disaster.
Court records say that FBI agents and MSHA special investigators have been looking into allegations that advance notice of inspections "had been given on a regular and continuing basis" at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Providing advance notice of inspections is a misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail. Legislation to make it felony with stiffer penalties is stalled in Congress.
Stover is one of two people charged criminally so far in a sprawling federal criminal probe of Upper Big Branch. The April 5, 2010, explosion was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Last month, Berger sentenced former Upper Big Branch miner Thomas Harrah to 10 months in jail. Harrah pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009 and to then lying to investigators about his actions.
A report by special investigator Davitt McAteer and preliminary findings from MSHA agreed that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that turned into a massive coal-dust blast because of Massey's poor safety practices.
Investigators believe the ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer. They also believe that a coal-dust buildup underground sent what could have been a minor ignition into an explosion that rocketed in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths.
The McAteer team concluded the disaster was caused by Massey's failure to follow basic safety standards, and by a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of worker safety. McAteer and his team cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer.
The McAteer report also criticized the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training and said the fact that 29 miners died in a mine explosion was proof positive that MSHA "failed its duty as a watchdog for coal miners."
Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June, has said it is still reviewing the disaster.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.