Federal agents arrested a Massey Energy chief of security Monday on charges of lying to the FBI and obstructing the criminal investigation into last year's deadly mine disaster in West Virginia.
Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, of Clear Fork, W.Va., was indicted on Feb. 25. The indictment is the first in the mine disaster investigation and was unsealed after Stover's arrest Monday.
An ambulance arrives on the scene on April 10, 2010, after an explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Twenty-nine workers died in the blast.
Stover supervised security at several Massey Energy coal mines, including the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 mineworkers died in a massive explosion in April 2010.
The indictment accuses Stover of lying to federal agents about an apparent systematic effort to deceive federal mine safety inspectors.
"Stover had himself directed and trained security guards at ... Upper Big Branch Mine to give advance notice" of unannounced federal inspections, the indictment says.
Stover and his guards used a special radio frequency to warn miners underground when inspectors arrived at the mine. That gave the miners the chance to mask or fix serious safety problems and avoid citations, fines and closure orders.
As NPR has reported, former Massey miners and federal mine inspectors have described this inspection dodge before.
Stover told federal agents, the indictment says, that Massey had "a practice and policy dating back to at least 1999 that forbade security guards at the Upper Big Branch mine from giving advance notice of an inspection." That was a firing offense, Stover claimed.
But the indictment says those statements were "false, fictitious and fraudulent."
Stover is also accused of directing the disposal of thousands of pages of security-related documents in a company trash compactor at the Upper Big Branch Mine "with the intent to impede, obstruct, and influence" the mine disaster investigation.
This conduct "threatens our effort to find out what happened at Upper Big Branch," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in a prepared statement. "This inquiry is simply too important to tolerate any attempt to hinder it."
The alleged actions by Stover also trouble Davitt McAteer, who was appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to conduct an independent investigation of the disaster's cause.
McAteer asks, "Were laws violated? Were regulations disregarded? And were shortcuts taken" before the explosion?
"I think this indictment suggests perhaps they were," McAteer adds.
Massey Energy issued a statement that did not respond to the inspection deception allegation. But Shane Harvey, the company's vice president and general counsel, said Massey "takes this matter very seriously and is committed to cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office."
Harvey claimed that Massey "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 to the U.S. attorney's office."
Melvin Smith, a spokesman for Goodwin, declined to comment on Harvey's claim. But Smith did refer to this statement in the indictment: "These documents were later recovered after the federal government inquired about their existence in the course of its investigation ..."
The indictment says the documents were recovered.
NPR's attempts to reach Stover for comment were unsuccessful. His attorney, former U.S. Attorney William Wilmoth, tells NPR he has "no comment this early in the case."
Stover was released on bail, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Charleston. An arraignment is scheduled for March 15.
A spokeswoman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration declined to comment.