Federal prosecutors have filed charges against a superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 miners in 2010. Legal experts who have been watching the case say this means prosecutors are getting closer to potentially bringing charges against top executives who ran Massey Energy.
Gary May is now the third mine supervisor to be charged in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Charges against May include conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by impeding a federal agency, a felony that could bring a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Specifically, May is accused of misleading Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors when they came to check the mine. May allegedly signaled workers, sometimes using code phrases, that inspectors were about to arrive. This could allow miners to cover up violations.
Charges include directing more fresh air into the mines just before inspectors arrived to make it appear air quality was better than it actually was.
May was also allegedly involved in the circumvention of a methane monitor which would shut down a continuous mining machine if methane levels rose.
Legal experts watching this case say the way the charges against May were filed indicate that he is cooperating with authorities and even may have reached a plea agreement with them.
Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer tells the Charleston Gazette that the nature of the allegations against May suggests prosecutors are taking a broader look at the higher levels of Massey.
The New York Times reports that observers say May’s cooperation with federal authorities could eventually lead prosecutors to top Massey executives, including Don Blankenship, former head of the company.
MSHA says on April 5, 2010, a massive coal dust explosion started as a methane ignition at the Upper Big Branch mine.
While that’s the technical reason for the disaster, MSHA says the mine’s owner, Massey, “promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.”
Also, “miners were intimidated by UBB management and were told that raising safety concerns would jeopardize their jobs.”
When workers needed extra time to resolve safety issues which delayed production, UBB officials issued “threats of retaliation and disciplinary actions.”
MSHA issued 369 citations to the mine’s owners with $10.8 million in civil penalties, the largest fine in the agency’s history by far.