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Upper Big Branch mine disaster: Ex-official hid safety violations

March 29, 2012|By Kim Geiger
  • Gary May, left, former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal health and safety violations.
Gary May, left, former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine in West… (Rick Barbero / Associated…)

Washington — A former mine official has pleaded guilty to conspiring to impede mine safety enforcement at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion.

Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, W. Va., admitted Thursday to concealing health and safety violations, using code phrases to give advance warning of inspections and ordering a mine examination book to be falsified. His actions, while he was superintendent of the mine, were intended to mask safety violations, including poor airflow and accumulation of explosive coal dust, two factors that have been deemed causes of the deadly explosion.

May is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 9. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

R. Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said May was cooperating with investigators. The conspiracy charge against him suggests other individuals might also be targets in the ongoing investigation into the blast.

“We hope he can give us a better picture of what was going on at this company,” Goodwin said in a prepared statement.

Alpha Natural Resources, the owner of the West Virginia mine, reached a settlement with federal prosecutors late last year, agreeing to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines. The agreement stopped prosecutors from pursuing criminal charges against the firm, which last June acquired Massey Energy, the company that owned Upper Big Branch at the time of the explosion.

The deal with prosecutors applied only to the company. At the time, Goodwin pledged that “no individuals are off the hook.”

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