West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten says federal authorities are investigating allegations that safety examination records were falsified at a Patriot Coal underground mine.
Wooten told the Charleston Gazette that federal prosecutors sent out five “target letters” to individuals at Patriot’s Federal No. 2 mine.
The state began investigating the Monongalia County mine in late January after it received a complaint about safety. That probe was halted after the federal investigation began as witnesses worried about a federal criminal probe declined to talk to state inspectors, Wooten said.
He said a foreman at Federal No. 2, John Renner of Morgantown, told state investigators he falsely reported completing a mandatory safety check on Jan. 24.
“I think the issue may go far beyond that examination,” Wooten told the newspaper. “Examinations may have been made and some samples taken, but the proper readings were not put into the books.”
Paul Cranston, an attorney for Renner, said Monday that his client has been cooperating with federal prosecutors.
“John Renner didn’t do anything in that coal mine that he wasn’t instructed or forced to do,” Cranston told the newspaper. “John Renner was under an enormous amount of pressure.”
A spokeswoman for acting U.S. Attorney Betsy C. Jividen declined to comment or to confirm the existence of an investigation.
A spokeswoman for the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration said the agency cannot comment on “this or any other ongoing investigation.”
The company issued a statement late Tuesday saying it was cooperating with the investigation and “will take appropriate actions as the facts become clearer.”
St. Louis-based Patriot also said it was cooperating with MSHA on a separate matter involving the Feb. 18 closure of the Federal No. 2 mine due to dangerous atmospheric conditions in a sealed area.
The company didn’t offer specifics but federal mining rules require action if methane gas levels in sealed areas reach explosive ranges. MSHA adopted the rule after 12 men died after methane exploded in a sealed area of the Sago Mine on Jan. 2, 2006.
Patriot said it was working with MSHA, and the mine would remain idle until the middle of next week. Federal regulators have allowed some workers to continue maintenance work in the interim.
The federal agency routinely warns coal companies that changes underground caused by winter weather can increase methane levels and make working conditions unsafe. Companies are to ensure mines are properly ventilated.
Shares of Patriot Coal Corp. fell Tuesday after the company’s announcement. Patriot fell $1.68, or 9.5 percent, to $15.94 in afternoon trading after earlier dropping as low as $15.88.
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