West Virginia Mine Foreman Pleads Guilty to Faking Safety Records

March 12, 2010

A foreman accused of faking a safety inspection report at a Patriot Coal Corp. mine pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of making false statements and certifications under federal mine safety laws.

John Renner, 40, of Granville, declined to elaborate on his plea, which was accepted by U.S. Magistrate John Kaull. Renner reserved the right to make a statement when he is sentenced later by U.S. District Judge Irene Keeley.

Renner faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The felony charge stems from a Jan 24. inspection Renner claimed to have made on a sealed area at the Federal No. 2 Mine near Fairview. Though he recorded numbers for methane and oxygen levels, Renner later acknowledged he did not make the inspection.

Craig Aaron, supervisory special investigator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s District 3, testified Renner could not have inspected the seal at the time he claimed. Renner had been in vehicle accident underground, he said, and was spotted elsewhere at the time noted in the log book.

Aaron said Renner confessed to falsifying the record a few days later.

Renner started working at Federal No. 2 in August 2008, training as a fireboss. His job was to test block seals on worked-out areas, determine whether methane and oxygen levels had reached a potentially explosive mix, then either ventilate the area or clear out the mine.

Federal regulations have required seal monitoring since a January 2006 explosion in a sealed section of the Sago Mine — about 70 miles south of Federal No. 2 –trapped and ultimately killed 12 men.

But in a Jan. 29 interview with state investigators, Renner admitted routinely entering false readings to keep production running. He claims his supervisor didn’t want accurate readings and ordered him to shut down the mine and evacuate workers only if a federal inspector happened to be watching.

Renner is now cooperating with a federal investigation of the mine.

Acting U.S. Attorney Betsy Jividen said the probe is continuing, but she did not elaborate.

Joe Main, head of MSHA, said the deliberate falsification of safety records endangers workers, “undermines MSHA’s enforcement responsibility and will be addressed by all available means.”

Renner, who has been fired, was ordered to try to get a job while he is free on bond. Kaull also ordered him to avoid contact with any potential witnesses in the investigation.

Renner, who said he is taking prescribed medications for anxiety, depression and panic attacks, also must submit to drug testing and participate in substance abuse counseling.

St. Louis-based Patriot said in a regulatory filing that it has fired one worker and put two others on administrative leave, but it has refused to comment on the investigation.

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