CHARLESTON, W.Va., Feb 29 (Reuters)- - The former security chief at a West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers were killed in a 2010 accident was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison for lying to federal agents and obstructing an investigation.
Hughie Elbert Stover of Clear Fork, West Virginia, had faced a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison after being convicted last October of making false statements to FBI and Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators and obstructing the federal probe into the cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster.
An explosion at the mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, which was owned by now-defunct Massey Energy, killed 29 miners in April 2010. It was the worst accident in the U.S. mining industry in four decades.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement.
Prosecutors said Stover had lied when he told FBI and mine safety investigators that security guards had not routinely warned mine personnel when inspectors were on their way to the mine.
But investigators discovered that Stover himself warned mine personnel in such cases. Stover also instructed another person to destroy thousands of Massey Energy documents related to the UBB mine, prosecutors said.
“I was hoping that his sentence would have had a little more time, but at least he will be taken away from his family,” said Shereen Atkins, of Racine, West Virginia, whose son Jason Atkins died in the 2010 blast.
“Of course, 36 months for him does not compare to my life sentence I received on April 5th when me and my husband lost our son,” she said.
Last week, Gary May, a former superintendent of the mine, was charged with felony conspiracy, accused of tipping off employees to safety inspections and concealing dangerous violations.
May is the highest-ranking Massey official to face criminal charges, which were laid out against him and “others known and unknown” in a criminal information filing, which is typically used when someone is expected to enter into a plea agreement.
Massey has been bought by Alpha Natural Resources.
Three reports, including a preliminary report by the mine safety administration and a report released by the United Mine Workers of America labor union, say Massey allowed unsafe conditions in the mine that led to the disaster.
Stover was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley, West Virginia. (Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Paul Simao)