WASHINGTON -- Criminal investigators sent an aggressive signal in probing the fatal Upper Big Branch mine explosion Monday with the arrest of a top security official on a pair of felony charges.
In the continuing grand jury investigation, Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, head of security for Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co., was arrested at his home in Raleigh County, W.Va., and charged with making false statements to federal agents and obstructing a federal investigation. The grand jury, which has been meeting for months in Charleston, W.Va., indicted him last week.
The April 5, 2010, explosion killed 29 men, the deadliest mine disaster in four decades. Stover is the first person to be charged in the criminal probe.
"The conduct charged by the grand jury -- obstruction of justice and false statements to federal investigators -- threatens our effort to find out what happened at Upper Big Branch," U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II said in a news release.
A culture of tipping off mine personnel to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections was detailed publicly at a U.S. House field hearing in West Virginia last year.
But it's significant for the U.S. attorney to indict a mid-level Massey employee for a practice fairly common in mine death investigations, said former prosecutor and MSHA official Tony Oppegard.
Of the four high-profile multiple-fatality mine accidents in 2006 and 2007 -- two in West Virginia, one in Kentucky and one in Utah -- only a fire in Aracoma, W.Va., that killed two men resulted in criminal indictments. MSHA declined to comment on this week's indictment.
The charges are among the most significant at the grand jury's disposal. Intentionally maintaining a hazardous mine -- or even tipping off underground employees to inspectors -- isn't a felony, but covering it up can be.
In Stover's indictment, unsealed Monday, the grand jury found he made false statements to an FBI agent and an MSHA investigator in January. The indictment said he told security guards to notify other mine employees when inspectors arrived. This practice -- which allows underground workers to quickly tidy up potential violations -- is illegal. Stover denied to investigators that he'd done so.
The indictment also states that Stover had an unnamed person dispose of thousands of pages of security-related documents to inhibit the investigation.
Massey put out an unsigned statement Monday distancing company policy from Stover's alleged actions and pledging cooperation with federal investigators.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)