CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, becoming the highest-ranking employee to face criminal prosecution in an investigation that appeared to be moving steadily up the corporate ladder.
Former Upper Big Branch mine boss Gary May, 43, is named in a “federal information,” a document that signals a defendant is co-operating with prosecutors. He is the second employee of the company that owns the mine, Massey Energy, to face prosecution in the case.
Reached at his home Wednesday morning, May declined comment.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his investigation of the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades is “absolutely not” finished, signalling that officials are now exploring possible criminal charges against even higher-level executives of the company. Goodwin did not immediately comment further.
Although other mine disasters have led to criminal charges, they’ve typically targeted low-ranking employees and have largely been misdemeanouroffences.
A conviction on the federal fraud charge could result in fines and up to five years in prison. It’s a rare, if not unprecedented legal strategy.
“Usually, they get the mine foreman because that’s the person that signs the books,” said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in the explosion. Superintendents are usually shielded, he added.
But Quarles said the charge announced Wednesday suggest prosecutors are looking at May’s bosses, too.
“It’s about time,” he said. “It’s a good start.”
Last week, Goodwin urged a federal judge in Beckley to make an example of the only other person charged so far, former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover. Goodwin is demanding the maximum possible sentence of 25 years in prison for actions he says contributed to the April 2010 disaster near Montcoal.
Stover is to be sentenced Feb. 29 for lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy documents.
May began working at Upper Big Branch in February 2008 as a mine foreman and was promoted in October 2009 to superintendent. He held that post, overseeing three room-and-pillar mining sections and a longwall operation, until the day the mine exploded on April 5, 2010.
The information filed in U.S. District Court in Beckley accuses May of conspiring with others to conceal many dangers in the mine through an elaborate scheme that included code words to alert miners underground when inspectors were on the property, the deliberate alteration of approved ventilation plans and the deliberate disabling of a methane gas monitor on the continuous mining machine.
Several reports about the explosion have already been released. The fourth and final report, by the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training, is being released Thursday.
The first three concluded that Virginia-based Massey Energy — which has since been bought by Alpha Natural Resources — allowed methane and coal dust to accumulate, and failed to properly maintain and repair the cutting equipment that eventually created the spark that fuel needed to explode.
Clogged and broken water sprayers then allowed what could have been a minor flare-up to become an epic blast that travelled seven miles of underground corridors, doubling back on itself and killing men instantly.
All three reports said the explosion could have been prevented or contained if the mine had been sufficiently dusted with pulverized limestone to render the coal dust inert. In the year before the Upper Big Branch blast, 70 ignitions occurred at U.S. coal mines, and none resulted in fatalities.