Coal Tattoo

Upper Big Branch indictment: Just the beginning?

If you missed the news yesterday, federal prosecutors have announced the first criminal charges from their broad investigation of the April 2010 disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

To be perfectly clear, the indictment of Performance Coal Coal Co. security chief Hughie Elbert Stover involves actions taken after the fatal explosion, alleging that Stover lied to federal agents and attempted to destroy documents to obstruct the investigation. Here’s the indictment:

Is this indictment the first of others to come, with more charges perhaps tied directly to safety violations that played a role in the explosion? Here’s what Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division said yesterday:

The explosion at Upper Big Branch was a national tragedy, and this investigation is a priority for the Department of Justice.  The indictment unsealed today shows our deep commitment to getting to the truth about what happened, including holding to account anyone who may impede this critical investigation.

In his NPR story, Howard Berkes pointed out one interesting side point from yesterday’s developments:

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.

The question, of course, is whether — as Massey’s statement suggests — the company kind of “self-reported” the missing documents.  I asked U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin if Massey’s statement was correct, and he said:

I’ll let them make their own characterizations about that.

I also asked Massey specifically how the company learned about the missing documents and if the company actually learned about the incident from federal investigators … I haven’t gotten an answer.