Trial starts for mine security boss in W.Va. blast

AP News
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Posted: Oct 24, 2011 6:37 PM
Trial starts for mine security boss in W.Va. blast

Federal prosecutors said Monday that the former security chief at a West Virginia coal mine where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion lied to investigators and attempted to destroy documents in defiance of company orders.

The trial of Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, is the first criminal proceeding to come from the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, the deadliest such blast in decades. Opening statements were given Monday in U.S. District Court.

Authorities allege that he sought to conceal that he instructed the mine's security guards to announce by radio when federal inspectors were on the property.

"Not only did he train his guards to make the announcement, he enforced the policy," Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Wright told jurors. "The evidence will show Mr. Stover's guards did announce the arrival of inspectors. They were to get on the radio. They were to announce the mine inspectors on the property."

Federal law forbids such advance warnings of spot mine safety checks. Stover had told investigators that mine policy barred this illegal practice, and that he would have fired any guard who violated it, according to the indictment.

Federal prosecutors say Stover also ordered a subordinate to destroy thousands of security-related documents that were kept in barracks on the Upper Big Branch property. Two orders had been issued to company employees after the explosion not to destroy the documents.

Defense attorney William Wilmoth argued the charges were the government's rush to justice and that Stover is being used as a scapegoat.

"Mr. Stover was ordered to do it," Wilmoth said of the advance warnings. "None of the bosses that required Mr. Stover to do this had ever been cited."

Wilmoth said the company had a practice of clearing out old property from the barracks because several years ago the building's contents were contaminated by sewage.

Among the documents tossed were old computer screens and video-cassette records. Throwing out the security-related documents was simply "a stupid mistake," Wilmoth said.

After the documents were thrown out, Wilmoth noted "each and every one of these documents were retrieved and the government didn't lose anything."

Wilmoth also said the area where the documents were discarded into a trash bin was covered by security cameras and that investigators were in the area at the time.

"If he was trying to do that, why did he involve another person?" Wilmoth told jurors. "Why didn't he try to do it himself? Do those sound like the kind of things someone would intentionally do if they were trying to obstruct an investigation?"

Among the early witnesses called to testify by the government were Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator of coal mine safety and health, and Tim Watkins, an MSHA district manager.

Charles Lilly, a security guard hired by Stover at the mine site in January 2001, testified under an immunity agreement with the government that he radioed ahead when an inspector came to the mine site in November 2007. Later that evening when the inspector came out of the mine, "he read me the riot act and (told me) not to do it anymore," Lilly said.

Lilly wrote an incident report and talked to Stover about it afterward. Lilly said Stover "advised me that he would have our lawyers look into it."

Stover later came back to Lilly and said the attorney affirmed the inspector notifications.

"I asked him if we had it in writing and he said `no,'" Lilly testified. "I said I wasn't going to do it anymore."

Earlier, Wright told the jurors that when the incident involving Lilly was mentioned to Stover, the defendant "said he didn't remember."

Massey is now owned by Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources.