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NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION: Coverage of mine safety in the U.S. after an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers.

First Guilty Plea In Mine Disaster Criminal Probe

A former foreman for Massey Energy has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the federal criminal investigation of last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia.

Thomas Harrah, 45, admits in a plea agreement (see below) to faking the foreman's credentials he used at the Upper Big Branch mine and then lying about it to federal agents.

Harrah left Upper Big Branch seven months before the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 Massey mine workers. But U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says the charges are "directed at preventing a similar tragedy from happening again."

Mine foremen are responsible for conducting safety inspections before and during production shifts underground that are supposed to catch problems that could put lives at risk. Harrah failed the examination that would have certified him as a properly trained foreman.

In the plea agreement, Harrah admits to falsely blaming an unnamed official from Massey Energy for helping to fake his foreman's certification.

"He left [Massey Energy] before we could terminate his employment, which we intended to do," says Shane Harvey, the company's vice president and general counsel. "We have no tolerance for such behavior and are thankful that no one was hurt as a result of Mr. Harrah's conduct."

Harrah faces as much as ten years in prison when he is sentenced August 11.

Charges are also pending against Hughie Stover, a security chief at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines. Stover is accused of lying to federal investigators about a practice in which security guards warned miners in advance when federal mine safety inspectors arrived at the mine.

Stover is also accused of attempting to dispose of evidence in the Upper Big Branch investigation. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in July.

A federal grand jury has been considering evidence in the disaster but has yet to return indictments directly related to the explosion.

Here is the full plea agreement:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.