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Mine did not check ex-foreman’s record

Managers of the Sago Mine could have easily found out that a man seeking a job as a mine foreman was not trained or licensed for such work, state regulatory officials said this week.

But mine officials did not demand that Robert L. Dennison provide them with proof of his license.

Apparently, the company also did not try to confirm his credentials with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. If they had, state regulators would have revealed that Dennison was not licensed.

Dennison might not have spent three months performing crucial safety checks at the Upshur County mine — actions that prompted a federal grand jury to charge him with more than 100 criminal mine safety violations earlier this week.

“All a company has to do is call,” said Caryn Gresham, a spokeswoman for the state mine safety office. “It takes only a matter of minutes.”

Gresham said the agency has most miner and foreman certification records computerized, and can quickly look up records that are still in paper files. Companies can obtain the information from regional offices of the agency headquarters in Charleston, she said.

On Tuesday, a federal grand jury in Elkins charged that Dennison repeatedly falsified mine safety tests and lied about his qualifications to perform those checks.

Dennison was charged in a 116-count indictment for crimes allegedly committed from May 2004 through August 2004. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 580 years in prison and a $1.88 million fine.

The indictment focuses on 113 instances in which Dennison allegedly certified he had a required license to perform various mine safety examinations.

Dennison’s actions occurred more than a year before the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners at the Upshur County underground mine.

U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Johnston has said that, “At this time, there is no apparent connection between the allegations in this case and the tragic events at the Sago Mine in January.”

The actions that prompted Dennison’s indictment also occurred long before International Coal Group formally took over the Sago Mine.

But ICG founder Wilbur Ross, a New York billionaire, controlled the mine’s previous owner, Anker Coal Group, since at least 2001, according to corporate records.

Dennison applied for a job as a Sago Mine foreman on May 15, 2004, according to the indictment released Tuesday.

The indictment says Dennison gave the company a state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training card stating he was certified on June 6, 1996, to work as an underground coal miner.

Dennison told former mine owner Anker Coal Group that he was also certified to work as a foreman, but gave the company no proof of that, the indictment states.

Anker hired Dennison five days later, on May 20, 2004, the indictment states.

State regulators say Dennison was never certified as a mine foreman or underground miner, but did receive a certificate as a surface mine truck driver.

Between May 20 and Aug. 22, Dennison signed records indicating he had performed 113 mine safety checks, including those covering belts, pumps and entire working sections of the mine.

The first time, Dennison did not list a foreman’s certification number. Each time after that, Dennison signed the reports and listed a foreman’s certificate number that actually belongs to another foreman, the indictment states. The indictment did not name the other foreman, but said he did not know Dennison and had never worked at Sago.

The indictment states that Anker “terminated” Dennison “on or about Aug. 23 ... upon learning” that he was not certified.

Gresham said West Virginia regulators consider it the company’s responsibility to ensure its employees have required certifications.

A state inspector cited Anker on Aug. 25, 2004, for not being able to produce proof that Dennison was certified.

“It’s unbelievable to me that a company would hire him without asking to see some documentation,” said Tony Oppegard, a former chief mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky. “What does that say about your safety program?”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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