(Adds details, company comment, stock movement)
By Bob Bird
CHARLESTON, W.Va. Feb 22 The former
superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers
died in a 2010 explosion was charged on Wednesday with felony
conspiracy by tipping off mine operators to safety inspections,
allowing them to conceal dangerous violations, authorities said.
Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, West Virginia, is the
highest-ranking official at Massey Energy to face criminal
charges in the worst accident in the U.S. mining industry in
Massey Energy owned the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of
the explosion on April 5, 2010.
"Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB,
in part because of a belief that following those laws would
decrease coal production," the charges said.
May is accused of conspiring to impede enforcement efforts
by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) at
Upper Big Branch for more than two years before the blast, R.
Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West
Virginia, said in a statement.
The charges against May and "others known and unknown" were
laid out in a criminal information filing, typically used when
someone is expected to enter into a plea agreement with
May and others would use code phrases to tip off mine
operators to pending inspections by the MSHA, which makes
unannounced visits to check for health and safety violations,
The advance notice was used to "conceal and cover up
violations," the filing said.
The MSHA enforces safety measures such as adequate
ventilation and operation of monitors that measure levels of
dangerous methane gas.
Prosecutors also allege May altered a ventilation system to
direct additional air to an area where an inspection was to take
place. He allegedly ordered falsification of records to omit
mention of a hazardous mine condition, and ordered electrical
wiring to be rigged so a piece of mining machinery could operate
for several hours without a functioning methane monitor.
If violations had been detected, "the resulting citations
and orders could result in coal production being stopped" or
could have subjected the mine to closer scrutiny, the filing
The charges against May carry a maximum penalty of five
years in prison.
Last year, the head of security at Upper Big Branch was
charged with impeding investigators and lying to them, and a
former foreman also has been accused of lying to investigators.
Massey has since been acquired by Alpha Natural Resources
, which agreed in December to pay $1.5 million to each of
the families of the 29 miners who died as part of a $209 million
settlement of civil and criminal charges against the company.
In a statement, the company said May, now an employee of an
Alpha subsidiary, has been placed on administrative leave.
"Although Alpha was not operator of the mine at the time of
the accident, the company supports efforts that will lead to a
full understanding of the circumstances that precipitated this
tragic event," Alpha said.
The company's stock fell 2.1 percent to $19.62 in afternoon
trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration released findings
last year showing a lack of protective rock dusting, worn drill
bits and a small amount of methane gas likely contributed to the
deaths of the 29 miners.
The company has said it believes a crack in the mine floor
released large amounts of methane and the disaster could not
have been prevented.
(Additional reporting by Steve James; Writing by Ellen
Wulfhorst; Editing by Daniel Trotta)