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Former Upper Big Branch mine security chief gets three-year sentence

02 March 2012

On February 29, former Upper Big Branch mine security chief Hughie Stover was sentenced to three years in prison. Stover was the security chief at the West Virginia coal mine in April 2010, when an explosion killed 29 miners.

Hughie Stover, former Upper Big Branch mine security chief
Hughie Stover, former Upper Big Branch mine security chief

US District Judge Irene Berger also sentenced Stover to two years of probation and a $20,000 fine after being convicted of the two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing a government probe of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

Stover, 60, of Clear Fork, was found guilty last October by a federal jury that concluded he lied to investigators about then owner Massey Energy's practice of warning underground workers when government safety inspectors arrived at its mines. The jury also concluded that Stover later tried to have one of his guards get rid of company documents about security procedures at Upper Big Branch.

The judge said she did not support US Attorney Booth Goodwin’s argument that Stover should receive the maximum sentence of 25 years, because his crimes did not play a major role in causing the April 5, 2010, disaster.

Afterwards, Goodwin said that Stover received "perhaps one of the longest sentences ever handed down in a mine safety case," and said his team was aiming higher up Massey's corporate ladder. "We wanted to send a clear message and will continue to send the message that anyone who obstructs our investigation, they're going to be met with the harshest prosecution," he told reporters.

Stover is the second person convicted in what the government says is a widespread criminal probe of Upper Big Branch, and of potential criminal violations at other Massey operations.

In September 2011, 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.

Last week, charges were filed against Gary May, an Upper Big Branch superintendent, accusing him of conspiracy to violate mine safety standards and cover up the resulting hazards at the mine. He was charged with a document called an information, rather than through a grand jury indictment, which typically means a defendant has reached a plea deal and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Four investigations by government agencies, an independent team and the United Mine Workers union have blamed the explosion on Massey's failure to maintain mining equipment, provide adequate underground ventilation and properly clean up explosive coal dust from mine tunnels.

Massey merged with Alpha Natural Resources in April, 2011.

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