WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former foreman at a West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 workers last year pleaded guilty on Wednesday to lying to investigators about his job qualifications, the first plea in a federal probe of the blast.
Thomas Harrah, 45, pleaded guilty to falsely claiming he was qualified to serve as a foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine between January 2008 and August 2009, about eight months before the explosion at the Massey Energy-owned mine.
"This case arose from our investigation into the explosion and is directed at preventing a similar tragedy from happening again," Booth Goodwin, attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said in a statement.
Investigators have been examining Massey's actions and the circumstances around the blast. The mine had been cited for many safety violations in the past but company officials have denied the explosion was the result of "willful disregard" for safety.
Harrah was the second person charged as a result of the criminal investigation into the accident. The head of security at the facility, Hughie Stover, was charged with impeding investigators probing the explosion and lying to them as well.
The April 5, 2010, explosion at the mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, was the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years. Massey has since agreed to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc.
Harrah admitted he had failed the mine foreman's examination and used someone else's certification number on reports stating he inspected underground areas where miners were scheduled to work or travel.
He acknowledged he looked at one of the examination books that listed other foremen who had passed the test and changed digits on one of their numbers and began using it as his own to sign examination logs at the Upper Big Branch mine, prosecutors said.
Harrah also admitted he made false statements to investigators claiming he had been given a phone number by a mine officer to get a foreman's certificate number after he failed the exam and that he received one after calling.
Instead, he had talked to the mine officer about retaking the exam, prosecutors said. Harrah did not take the exam again.
He could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. He is due to be sentenced on August 11.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Peter Cooney)