CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The security chief of a Massey Energy Co. subsidiary is charged in a federal indictment with obstructing the investigation of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, federal prosecutors said Monday.
The indictment accuses Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, of lying to an FBI agent and a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector. It also charges he ordered an employee to dispose of thousands of pages of security documents from the Raleigh County mine more than nine months after the explosion.
The April 5 blast was the deadliest at a U.S. coal mine since 1970 and remains the subject of criminal and civil investigations. Stover is the first person connected to the case known to be charged with a crime.
Stover was head of security at Performance Coal, the Massey subsidiary that operates the mine. The indictment was handed up Friday and unsealed Monday when Stover was arrested and later released on a $10,000 bond. Lying to the FBI is punishable by up to five years in prison, while obstruction carries a 20-year term.
A telephone message left at Stover's Clear Fork home was not immediately returned Monday. Stover is due to be arraigned March 15 in Beckley.
The indictment was no surprise to coal miner Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died at Upper Big Branch.
"I expected it, and I expect there'll be more because that's just the way they run their operations," Mullins said. "I hate it for that guy's family, but our families need justice. ... This is something that needs to never be forgotten."
Mullins said he's frustrated that the first indictment took so long, "but I do appreciate them doing a thorough investigation." He said he wants all of those responsible to be held accountable.
"The people that's responsible, I hope they do go to jail," he said. "If they broke the law, that's no different than anybody else on the street. If they violate the laws, they go to prison."
The indictment says Massey regularly violated federal law by warning underground workers when government officials arrived to conduct safety inspections at its mines. The father of one of the victims told a congressional panel last May that Massey used radio messages warning that "a man" was on the property when MSHA arrived for an inspection.
Stover is accused of lying when he told FBI and MSHA investigators on Jan. 21 that company policy prohibited such warnings. Stover "had himself directed and trained security guards at Performance's Upper Big Branch Mine to give advance notice by announcing the presence of an MSHA inspector," the indictment said. The warnings went out on a radio channel used by another Massey operation, but monitored at Upper Big Branch, according to the indictment.
Stover also is accused of ordering an unnamed person to dump documents dealing with security at Upper Big Branch in a trash compactor Jan. 11 despite knowing the explosion was the subject of criminal and civil investigations.
"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," said Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. "This inquiry is simply too important to tolerate any attempt to hinder it. My office will continue to devote every available resource to this most critical of cases."
Assistant Attorney General Lanney Breuer said the indictment reflects the federal government's "commitment to getting to the truth about what happened, including holding to account anyone who may impede this critical investigation."
Shane Harvey, general counsel for Richmond, Va.-based Massey, said Massey alerted prosecutors when it found out the documents had been dumped.
"The Company notified the U.S. Attorney's office within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over," Harvey said in a statement.
An MSHA spokeswoman declined to comment.
Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith contributed to this report.