Goodwin's office had three attorneys at the trial for the Stover case, and two others are also assigned to Upper Big Branch. Most of the crimes they would consider prosecuting have a five-year statute of limitations, giving them plenty of time to develop more cases.
Some of the nation's most fierce advocates for coal-mine safety are pleased with Goodwin's progress, and believe federal investigators will eventually bring more charges.
Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety lawyer in Kentucky, said Thursday that it's important to prosecute anyone who pretends they have the proper foreman's training and credentials to conduct mine safety examinations.
"To me, that's a particularly egregious act and it's more widespread than people think," Oppegard said.
Oppegard also said it was important to send a message that obstructing the disaster probe would not be tolerated, given the accounts of former Upper Big Branch miners about intimidation of workers with safety concerns.
"I see this as a beginning point and the prosecutors sending a message that if you lie to us, you're in trouble," Oppegard said.
So far, Alpha Natural Resources, which in June acquired Massey Energy, has declined to comment on the latest criminal conviction in the Stover case.
Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha, said that his company continues its own investigation of Upper Big Branch, but does not have a timeline for completing that "thorough and exhaustive" effort.
An independent investigation, a union probe and preliminary findings of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have all blamed the explosion on Massey's routine failure to maintain mining equipment, provide adequate underground ventilation and properly clean up explosive coal dust from mine tunnels.
Federal mine safety law makes it a crime to knowingly and willfully violate a safety or health standard. But doing so is only a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. Falsifying a variety of mine safety reports required by MSHA is a felony that carries up to 5 years in jail.
Frequently in mine safety prosecutions, charges of lying on MSHA reports are brought against low-level section foremen whose jobs involve signing those reports. Those same foremen -- or lower-level subsidiary firms listed as mine operators -- are typical targets for charges of willfully violating safety standards.
That's what happened after the January 2006 fire that killed miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. paid a $2.5 million criminal fine. Five of the subsidiary's mid- and low-level foreman later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. No one went to jail.
Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who served on Davitt McAteer's independent probe of Upper Big Branch, noted this week that only one of the four combined criminal counts in the Harrah and Stover cases stemmed from mine safety laws. Prosecutors used more general laws that make it a crime to lie to federal agents or try to conceal or destroy evidence in a federal investigation, McGinley said.
"Federal prosecutors have numerous tools available should they find criminal conduct led to the UBB disaster," McGinley said. "It appears that the Justice Department attorneys are carefully examining an enormous amount of evidence to determine if there are persons who should be held criminally responsible for the deplorable conditions that led to the UBB disaster."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.