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Mine disaster: Official charged with blocking inspections; 29 died

February 22, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Chunks of coal bear the names of miners who died in the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine.
Chunks of coal bear the names of miners who died in the explosion at Massey… (Amy Sancetta/AP Photo )

The then-superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was charged Wednesday with conspiring with others to block federal regulators from enforcing safety requirements at the facility where 29 people were killed in an explosion.

Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, W.Va., became the highest-ranking employee to be charged in the April 5, 2010, disaster. Because he is accused of conspiracy, others at the mine’s former owner, Massey Energy Co., likely are targets of action as well.

In a prepared statement accompanying the release of the federal information charging May, U.S. Atty. Booth Goodwin made it clear that the investigation was far from over.

“Today's charge is a significant step in the investigation of events at the Upper Big Branch mine,” Goodwin said. “Our investigation of those events remains ongoing.”

Massey was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011, said Rick Nida, the company’s manager of external communications, in a telephone interview. May is an employee who is on administrative leave.

“We’ve pledged since the acquisition that we’ll cooperate fully with the Department of Justice and other agencies investigating the accident,” Nida said. “We were not the operator at the time. We support the efforts to lead to a full understanding of the circumstances that precipitated this event.”

May is accused of conspiring to block enforcement efforts by the Mine Safety and Health Administration between February 2008 and April 5, 2010.

Prosecutors allege that May and others used code phrases to warn about inspectors who were touring the site. May also is charged with ordering that records be falsified.

In the federal document, May is accused of altering the mine’s ventilation system while an inspector was taking an air sample and at another time ordering that a monitor be rewired so that mining could continue despite elevated levels of methane.

May faces a maximum of five years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charge, a felony.

Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover is the only other former employee at the mine to be charged so far. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 29 for lying to investigators and attempting to destroy records. Prosecutors are seeking the maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

At least three reports on the explosion have been released and another is pending. Massey has been blamed for allowing methane and coal dust to accumulate and failing to properly maintain cutting equipment that led to a spark that ignited the fuel.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that the accident was “entirely preventable.”  The agency fined Alpha a record $10.8 million in civil penalties.

Prosecutors reached a settlement late last year with Alpha, which agreed to pay $209 million to resolve Massey's criminal and civil liabilities. That included the federal fine.

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com

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