Foreman says W.Va. mine boss ordered him to fake records of dangerous gas levels to save money

By Vicki Smith, AP
Friday, March 5, 2010

Foreman says mine boss ordered him to fake records

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A mining foreman accused of forging safety inspection reports at a West Virginia coal mine says his boss put profit ahead of potential danger, telling him to stop production and evacuate the mine only if a federal inspector was watching.

John Renner, a foreman at Patriot Coal Corp.’s Federal No. 2 mine near Fairview, told state investigators he wanted to do his job properly. But he wanted to keep it even more: In 2009, he made $106,000 with overtime.

“I’ve got three kids at home, and I’ve never had a good job like this,” he told state mine safety investigators on Jan. 29. At the time, the state was investigating reports of trouble at the north-central West Virginia mine.

The investigation has since been turned over to federal authorities, and Renner has been charged with falsifying inspection reports. He is cooperating with prosecutors and is expected to plead Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg.

Audio recordings of that meeting with state officials reveal a man struggling with panic attacks, regularly consulting a psychiatrist and taking more medication than prescribed to deal with job-related stress. Throughout the two-hour interview, Renner said he feared being fired but was relieved to tell his story.

He said his father, who retired after 38 years as a miner, urged him to come clean: “He’s told me from day one, don’t cut corners. Always be honest.”

Renner started working at Federal on Aug. 15, 2008, training as a fireboss. His job was to test the 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 methane explosion in a sealed section of the Sago Mine — just 70 miles south of Federal No. 2 — trapped and ultimately killed 12 men.

But Renner says his marching orders became clear just days after he received his foreman certification in late 2008, when mine foreman Randy Coffindaffer, his supervisor, berated him for an evacuation.

“I tell you what, I thought I was fired then,” Renner said. “He cussed at me. Screamed at me. … He said, ‘Do you know how much money you’re costing this company right now, evacuating it?’”

Coffindaffer told him then he was “never, ever, under any circumstances” to evacuate over seal readings unless a federal inspector was present, Renner said.

Coffindaffer could not be reached by The Associated Press. His home telephone has been disconnected, and a worker at Federal No. 2 declined to relay messages. The human resources office refused to say whether he’s still working at the mine.

In a regulatory filing, Patriot acknowledged it has fired one worker and put two others on administrative leave, but the St. Louis-based company would not identify the employees or comment on the investigation.

Renner’s attorneys did not respond to questions, so it’s unclear whether he’s still employed.

Federal has more than 90 seals, but Renner told the investigators only a handful routinely caused problems.

After the evacuation in 2008, Renner once again got bad readings on a seal. This time, Renner said he recorded it in his book and went to Coffindaffer, thinking he’d order the evacuation.

Instead, he claims Coffindaffer ripped the page from the book, cutting the ragged edge off with a pocketknife. Coffindaffer shredded the page, shouted at him, then stuffed the scraps in his pocket, Renner said.

Later, he said Coffindaffer told him, “As long as I don’t have no problems, you won’t have no problems.”

“I knew what he meant,” Renner told the investigators. “He meant he didn’t want no problem with these seals.”

Aside from Coffindaffer, Renner said, safety workers at Federal took their jobs seriously.

“But when it comes to these seals … I can’t turn in a reading if it’s bad,” he said.

Renner said he liked his job but worried about the ramifications of ignoring methane levels and kept track of the bad readings he couldn’t report. He told investigators they were too high on 15 days in December 2009.

“I honest to God thought about quitting,” he said, “because I couldn’t do nothing.”

The company said Friday it was suspending mining at the mine after an air measurement in an abandoned area of the mine was out of compliance. The company said it would review its ventilation plan with federal officials so the mine could resume production.

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