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New Criminal Charges Stem From W.Va. Mine Explosion Investigation

The criminal investigation into last April's deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia has produced a second set of charges.

But, like the first, the new two-count criminal "information" just filed by the U.S. Attorney in Charleston, W. Va., does not directly involve the April 5 blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 mine workers and injured two others.

Instead, a former Upper Big Branch foreman is accused of falsifying the document that certified he was qualified to perform a foreman's work. Thomas Harrah, 45, of Boone County, W. Va., is also charged with lying to federal agents about his fake certification.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin alleges in a statement that Harrah performed pre-shift and on-shift safety examinations at Upper Big Branch from January 2008 to August 2009 even though he was not qualified to do that safety work.

Goodwin also says Harrah told federal investigators that someone at Massey subsidiary Performance Coal provided him with a false certification number. "In fact, Harrah invented the foreman's certification number," the statement says.

Both charges are felonies and each is punishable by as much as five years in prison and as much as $250,000 in fines.

Three weeks ago, a Massey security chief was indicted for allegedly lying to investigators and attempting to dispose of evidence. Hughie Stover has pleaded not guilty and faces a preliminary hearing April 5, the first anniversary of the Upper Big Branch explosion. A criminal trial is scheduled to begin April 25.

Both sets of charges resulted from an ongoing criminal investigation into the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

"I want to be clear," Goodwin said in a statement. "There will be real consequences if you falsify records, lie to federal agents, or otherwise attempt to obstruct this investigation."

Update at 5:15 p.m. ET: Here are the charges. Just click on "HarrahCharges" to make this reader pop up:

HarrahCharges

Update at 5:33 p.m. ET: News of Harrah's alleged deception broke in December in the Charleston Gazette, which also posted audio of a state hearing in which Harrah described his actions.

(NPR's Howard Berkes has been reporting about "Mine Safety In America" for the past year.)

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