WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced the former security chief at a West Virginia mine to three years in prison after being convicted of two felonies related to a federal probe into the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years, in which 29 workers died.
Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, was convicted in October for making false statements to Mine Safety and Health Administration and FBI investigators as well as obstructing the probe into the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
During a nearly three-hour hearing in Beckley, West Virginia, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced him on Wednesday to three years in a federal prison to be followed by two years of supervised release, according to court records.
"Today's sentence sends a clear message that when a person obstructs an investigation - especially an investigation as critical as UBB - there will be consequences," Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said in a statement.
The mine where the April 5, 2010 explosion occurred was owned by Massey Energy, which was bought last year by Alpha Natural Resources. In addition to the 29 miners killed, two others were injured.
Prosecutors had asked that Stover be sentenced to the maximum 25 years in prison citing the gravity of the case, far above federal sentencing guidelines that recommended a prison term of 33 months to 41 months.
"Indeed, even the 25-year maximum sentence would represent only 10-1/2 months for each death involved," prosecutors said in a submission to the judge, adding that a lower sentence would "risk trivializing the impact" of Stover's conduct.
Prosecutors said that Stover required his team to watch for inspectors so they could alert mine workers when they arrived, despite being told that such alerts were illegal. He falsely denied that such a practice existed when questioned by authorities, they said.
Stover was also convicted for obstructing the investigation into the disaster by ordering the disposal of thousands of pages of Massey security documents in a trash compactor, but the materials were recovered.
Stover's lawyer had urged the judge to sentence him to probation or home confinement, arguing that authorities had asked his client vague questions and that Stover did not know that he should not have disposed of the records in question.
Several investigations have blamed Massey for the disaster by allowing unsafe working conditions at the mine.
The sentencing coincided with release of the latest mine inspection statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
MSHA said that in January federal inspectors issued 171 citations, 15 orders and two safeguards for safety violations at 12 coal mines. The inspections began in force in April 2010 following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.
One of Alpha Natural Resources' mines, Deep Mine 41 in Virginia, received 5 citations in the January inspection, MSHA said.
It did not specify the violations, but they can typically include frequent hazard complaints or hotline calls; plan compliance issues; inadequate workplace examinations; a high number of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane gas, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.
The case is USA v. Stover in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, No. 11-cr-38.