By Bob Bird
CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters)- - The former security chief at a coal mine where 29 miners died in 2010 was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison for lying to federal agents and obstructing an investigation into the worst accident in the U.S. mining industry in four decades.
Hughie Elbert Stover of Clear Fork, West Virginia, had faced a maximum possible sentence of 25 years in prison by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley, West Virginia.
He was convicted last October of giving false statements to FBI and Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators and with obstructing the federal investigation into the cause of the Upper Big Branch disaster.
An explosion at the mine, owned by the now-defunct Massey Energy, killed 29 miners in April 2010.
"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 when mine safety inspectors were on their way. 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 Virgnia, whose son Jason Atkins died in the UBB explosion.
"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, a former superintendent of the mine was charged with felony conspiracy, accused of tipping off employees to safety inspections and concealing dangerous violations.
The former superintendent, Gary 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, typically used when someone is expected to enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Massey has since 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, blame Massey for the disaster by allowing unsafe conditions in the mine.
(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Johnston)